In 2004, I was editing a Black community-centered edition of POZ, a magazine about HIV/AIDS. I was planning a story about the shifting representation of Black gay men on television that wouldn’t have been complete without quotes from Michael K. Williams, who was two years into playing Omar on The Wire. The only problem was, he didn’t have a press person, and HBO hadn’t responded to my lowly request.
A couple of days into my efforts to contact the actor, I happened to see Williams at a party in Manhattan. I was hesitant to bother him, but I had a job to do. I asked him for an interview, and we ended up having a long conversation about his work with Crystal Waters, his love of dance, and how little he cared about whether people thought he was gay in real life. At a time when homophobia was rampant, I was struck that he was excited to talk about media images of Black masculinity and sexuality at a party. “I get a lot of love in the ’hood, ironically,” I remember him saying, belying the narrative of disproportionate homophobia in the Black community. “They love the honesty of my character. It makes them realize there are all kinds of people in the ‘hood.”
In the days since Williams was found dead in his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, apartment, much has been said about his impact. But to truly appreciate Williams’ cultural stamp, you have to go back to the early 2000s muck of unsubtle colorism, uninventive casting, and unapologetic homophobia—and how gracefully he pushed back against these things, well ahead of his time.
Williams came into acting with an impressive dance background. In the ’90s, the Brooklyn native performed with George Michael and Madonna and choreographed for house music legend Crystal Waters. But in the early 2000s, parts for Black men were limited.
With a few exceptions like Damon Wayans’ patriarch on My Wife and Kids, and cornball William on Girlfriends, Black men most often played criminal or crime-adjacent roles—thugs, judges, and cops. In movies, they were sadistic drug dealers, sensitive drug dealers, drug dealers with big dreams, or Will Smith. Famous rappers like Ice Cube, DMX, and LL Cool J occupied roles that might have gone to an up-and-coming actor like Williams.
The Wire offered him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play an intriguing character: Omar made a living sticking up drug dealers with a sawed-off shotgun but had a strict moral code with civilians. He was feared and respected by the hardest of criminals but tender with loved ones—especially his boyfriends.
While there’s no doubt that Williams needed the work, it’s impossible to stress how big a risk he took when he agreed to play Omar. If media images of straight Black men were limiting, Black gay roles were radioactive. Pre-Omar, gay, Black, and male meant squealing caricatures (In Living Color’s Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather) and gossipy hairdressers (Soul Food).* In “real” life, there was author J.L. King on Oprah, dishing about deceitful gay Black men living “on the down low.” There were urban legends of Black gay men maliciously “spreading AIDS” to unsuspecting straight women, Black pulpits spewing violent sin-talk, and then–shock jock Wendy Williams whipping up hysteria with her hunt for “the gay rapper.” And of course, hip-hop, the youth culture that ran through The Wire, was a robust supplement to the on-screen stereotyping. Besides the well-documented hate speech in any number of popular songs, this era produced the trend of peppering conversations with “pause” and ”no homo,” meant to undo anything that “sounded gay.”
And yet there was Williams playing a character who stood at the intersection of traditional Black masculinity, street bravado, and same-gender-loving queerness. Perhaps equally important was how Williams discussed the role, even as a relatively unknown actor. Social media didn’t exist when Williams became famous playing Omar. He was not facing the specter of cancellation for saying something impolitic. And still, in interviews like the one he did with me at that party in Manhattan and many others for larger outlets, he spoke with great care and respect for the man he portrayed. “Omar is this dark-skinned outspoken man in the hood who didn’t care what anyone thought of him. He is everything I wished I could be.” Said in a 2007 interview with the New York Times.
Williams would go on to play major roles like concerned father Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, charmer Jack Gee in Bessie, and bisexual Montrose Freeman in Lovecraft Country, a part that garnered him an Emmy nomination. He would become a criminal justice reform advocate, the host of Vice’s Black Market, and a GQ favorite. His ink-black beauty came into vogue.
The night I met him, I remember thinking that he could have easily opted for cynical distancing from the character he played, with a tossed-off comment like “I’m making money though.” But he was unafraid of having a discreet, sincere, almost reverent conversation that forecasted the more fluid masculinity we see today. Without Omar, there is no Tyler the Creator, Young Thug, or Kid Cudi wearing a Kurt Cobain–inspired dress on Saturday Night Live without major repercussions.*
To me, the clearest document of what Williams had to offer to me about portrayals of Black masculinity— is the now-viral video of him dancing to house music in a Brooklyn park. There he is, a star in his easy elegance, swaying, jumping, and catching the spirit. It’s the movement of a Black man who is fully free.
Correction, Sept. 10, 2021: This article originally misspelled Kurt Cobain’s last name and the character Blaine Edwards’ first name.