Simply stated, Michael K. Williams is due. Yes, I know it’s a hoary cliche to describe a well-lauded actor who heretofore has not taken home an Emmy as “due.” But let’s just consider the case of Michael K. Williams.
When Williams broke out on The Wire as the one of a kind quasi-Robin Hood (okay, he kept all the money for himself and his crew, but you get the idea) stick-up man of drug dealers, Omar Little, he felt like a one-man revolution. Show watchers and film goers had seen plenty of stories about drug dealers and urban street crime, but no one had ever seen Omar Little. Unapologetically gay in a world that suffered nothing short of uber-masculinity, Omar was ruthless to all those in “the game.” Yet, he still had a conscience of a sort. He would do no harm to anyone who was a working stiff – not even if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. “Man got to have a code,” Omar would say. And he stuck to his.
Despite putting in five seasons of incomparable work, Williams got not on nod from the Academy. Which is astonishing. Sure, the ratings were modest, but the critical plaudits rang out in high volume. Omar Little was no secret. Still, his name was never called.
Just two years later, Williams bounced to his second iconic role. That of the African American gangster, Chalky White, on Boardwalk Empire. Once again, Williams showed us a character that was unfamiliar to us despite residing in a relatively familiar tale – that of prohibition era gangsters. While much credit must be given to the show’s creator, Terence Winter, for creating such an unconventional character, it was Williams who made the role sing. Like Omar, Chalky had swagger, but also a touching vulnerability that would come out at the most unexpected times. In one of the all-time great hand to hand fight scenes, Chalky faces off with old frenemy, Dunn Purnsley (played by the terrifying Erik LaRay Harvey). It’s a duel to the death with both men taking and losing advantage. While Chalky prevails, the fear that registers in White’s eyes is palpable and unnerving. Once again, Emmy voters paid him no mind (Williams would finally score a nod for supporting actor in the TV film, Bessie, starring Queen Latifah).
Another two years would pass before Williams got this third great TV role (and second Emmy nomination). That of the incarcerated drug dealer, Freddy Knight in The Night Of. As Freddy, Williams is once again fearsome and formidable. Of course, those are the obvious notes to hit. What Williams did in playing Knight was show a sensitive side to the series’ main protagonist, Nasir Khan (played wonderfully by Riz Amed). It’s not entirely clear why Freddy is so kind to “Naz.” but we don’t need to know the exact reason – at least not in words. Because Williams’ – with his remarkably emotive eyes – makes us feel that which is not explicit.
That’s a gift.
Never was the gift more on display than in this year’s brilliantly directed (by Ava Duvernay) limited series depicting the fate of the Central Park 5, When They See Us. As a father with a record who gives terrible advice to his son as the younger man is being interrogated/railroaded by overzealous police, Williams breaks many hearts. That of his son, his wife, the viewer, and most crushingly, his own. Williams’ Bobby McCray forcefully ruins his son’s life by telling him to say whatever the police want him to.
It’s a slow-motion car crash. You know how badly all of this is going to turn out. We know how wrong Bobby is. We see how cowardly he is in not turning up at his son’s trial to support him. And when his son does get out of prison, we find him too withered by kidney disease to make amends. It is not an easy thing to play pathetic, but Williams leans into it. He makes no excuses for his character’s behavior. He does not try to make us like him. But when he shuffles to his son’s room to offer him food and his boy won’t even look at him, the expression on his face is devastating.
Think about that. Williams plays a character who maybe doesn’t deserve redemption. Nor does he get it. Which seems fair, I suppose. Yet still, we want it for him. Again, it’s those eyes. Bobby McCray is a man turning into a ghost right before us. He has betrayed his son. He cannot fix it. So, he offers him soup. And even that, his son will not accept from him. Jesus, I’m trying not to cry while writing this.
Forget what I said about Michael K. Williams being “due.” Hell, he’s overdue. This can be fixed though. And it should be. Sometime on the night of September 22nd between the hours of 8PM and 11PM EST would do just fine.