The death of the actor Michael K. Williams, at the age of 54, was reported on 6 September. He had been found unresponsive in his Brooklyn penthouse. Williams was a major player in The Wire, one of American culture’s sharpest analyses of what happened to the country in the wake of 9/11. There are references throughout the series to ‘when the towers fell’, a sly yet obvious allusion both to the collapse of the World Trade Center and to the demolition of high-rise housing projects in Baltimore. The show pointed to the manifold ways the funding of America’s ill-conceived and ill-fated War on Drugs was diverted to the War on Terror.
Williams portrayed Omar Little, a ‘stick-up man’ who robs drug dealers, a moving target with a staunch moral code. Innocents and thugs alike announce ‘Omar comin’!’ when Little appears swaggering through the alleyways and dead-end streets of West Baltimore. He spends most of the rest of the time hiding out, watching and waiting. There isn’t much that escapes his notice. Peeping from the windows of blighted buildings, Omar was like a fusion of Malcolm X as seen in Don Hogan Charles’s photo of the leader peering out the blinds of his Queens home and Detroit Red, the street hustler Malcolm was before he joined the Nation of Islam.
Like a lot of actors committed to their craft, Michael K. Williams led many lives. Born and raised in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, he got into trouble in his youth but then gravitated to the National Black Theater in Harlem. ‘I was once the kid that nobody thought would make it,’ he said in an interview with Nessa Diab a few years ago, ‘so I decided to use my platform to be a beacon of light for kids who are a little lost, like I was.’
Before his starring roles, in The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Hap and Leonard and, most recently, Lovecraft Country, he had bit parts on The Sopranos and Law and Order. And before that he was a backup dancer for Madonna, George Michael and CeCe Peniston. He said more than once that the video for Janet Jackson’s funky, austere ‘Rhythm Nation’ (1989) changed his life. ‘I saw myself,’ he told Diab. ‘There was Tyrin Turner in this dark factory, lost, couldn’t find the way out, and here’s Janet in there telling him it’s all right … be who you are and be strong.’
He went to thrumming industrial buildings where house music blared out of speakers as tall as pro basketball players. In 1994, he appeared in and choreographed the video for Crystal Waters’s ‘100% Pure Love’. The look of it is 1990s retro-spy chic, and Williams is dressed in a generic dark grey business suit and tie. It’s the costume of a person you’re supposed to think is inflexible – an actuary, a federal agent, a corporate drone. And yet, he swings. He’s housing, mixing the phrases of African dance, vogue, balletic gestures and the pumping steps of an aerobic class. That was his style, briefly stated: he could give you traditionally masculine hardbody bravado – he later appeared as a tough guy in hip-hop videos in the early 2000s – but he wasn’t afraid to relay softness either. He consistently brought to even the smallest parts an unmatched combination of ferocity and vulnerability.
In all his roles – whether as Omar, or Bessie Smith’s husband Jack Gee, or Robert in Twelve Years a Slave – he brought that swing with him, swaying in the dance of an intimate scene. He narrowed his eyes, or smiled, puckered his mouth like so, or put some bass in his voice. His raspy tone sounded like it came from the throat of a bossa nova maestro coated with cigarette smoke, his changes of expression as subtle as the tap on a soft pack of Newport 100s. In every performance, just as in the Waters video, he metaphorically loosened his tie and untucked his shirt, showing the tenderness beneath the macho drag, and making the costume comfortable enough to move in.
One of my favourite sequences in The Wire comes from season one, episode five, ‘The Pager’. Omar is drawing a map in a patch of dirt for his two accomplices. The stick-up crew is preparing to ensnare a couple of low-level dealers. ‘That be the trap right there, homes,’ Omar says, and takes a pull from his cigarette. ‘Rats always run to holes in times of danger.’ Omar’s boyfriend asks him if he’s ‘danger’. ‘Nah man,’ he says, ‘I’m just a nigga wit a plan, that all.’ We cut to a wide shot showing Omar’s van, and then to a judge walking into a dimly lit room, apologising for getting lost down the wrong hallway.
The scene is set in a different kind of dark factory – an abandoned utility building the Baltimore Police are using as an operations hub. The cops are hoping to get the judge to sign a wiretap affidavit so they can surveil a drug lieutenant’s pager. The juxtaposition of Omar planning his attack and the police manoeuvring to ‘get up on the wire’ is no accident. The way the scene is edited almost suggests the judge has been turned around by Omar’s rudimentary map.
The Wire is clearly a show about surveillance, but it’s also about sousveillance. The term was coined by the Canadian inventor and tech theorist Steve Mann in 2002 to describe ‘watchful vigilance from underneath’, such as ‘citizens keeping a watch on their government and police forces’. Mann explained that sousveillance was originally carried out ‘by the body-borne camera formed by the eye, and the body-borne recording device comprised of the mind and brain’. In the first season of The Wire, a young dealer breaks a CCTV camera by throwing a stone at it (shades of David and Goliath?); an abbreviated version of the scene appears in the show’s opening credits. Ever watchful of both the police and the dealers’ henchmen, Omar is an avatar of sousveillance.
In Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, Simone Browne extends Mann’s idea into a concept she calls ‘dark sousveillance’ which ‘plots imaginaries that are … hopeful for another way of being’, and can be seen as a ‘way to situate the tactics employed to render one’s self out of sight, and strategies used in the flight to freedom from slavery as necessarily ones of undersight’. She counts spirituals and forms of Black dancing under the umbrella of dark sousveillance, along with other ‘black performative practices and creative acts’. I think acting might be one, too. Whether as Omar, or Robert, the enslaved man plotting an escape from the ship in Twelve Years a Slave, Michael K. Williams picked roles that took seriously the power of looking back and dreaming otherwise. If Omar was an emblem of a kind of sousveillance, Williams was the camera, looking not only at his character’s combatants but also beyond the screen; he returned the gaze of the viewers who watched him every Sunday night.
In a short for HBO and the Atlantic released in 2018, the actor sips a smoothie and asks: ‘You think I’m being typecast?’ A differently dressed version of himself, sitting at the other end of the couch and stroking a furball, replies: ‘I don’t know, you think this cat is typecast?’ Soon, multiple other versions of himself crop up around the room. One, in a black du-rag, holding a sawn-off shotgun, interrupts the philosophical meandering: ‘Man, this whole metaphor is bullshit, yo. You hear me? You think everybody don’t got a role to play? Huh? You think a white boy could have played Omar?’
‘I picked these roles. Me! I made this path for myself,’ the first Williams says. ‘If I were typecast, I’d be in jail or dead. But I’m here. I got out, got myself out.’ When he jammed in a New York City park last year he was taking part in the ongoing work of dark sousveillance, radiating joy as an everyday practice of attaining and enjoying freedom.