In Memoriam: Michael Kenneth Williams
One of the Greatest Has Left Us Far Too Soon
I’ve been writing profusely over the past few weeks about my predictions for this year’s Emmys. So I could say that writing about the passing of Michael K. Williams on Monday was something that fell by the wayside.
But I’ll be brutally honest. When I looked online and learned that Williams was dead and that it was likely an overdose, I felt like I’d been stabbed in the gut. I’ve been dealing more frequently with the passing of celebrities I admire over the last couple of years, but very few have cause the feel of true pain that this one has. Not even the death of Alex Trebek in November was comparable — yes I felt agony, but he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer over a year ago. I’d had time to prepare myself.
Williams — it’s not just that it came so suddenly. It’s that he seemed so alive. And I’m not exaggerating that. A week before he OD, I’d seen him accept the Hollywood Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama. He seemed happy, exuberant. Now that I learned of how he died, the questions overwhelm me. Did he start back on drugs because of the recognition he finally seemed on the verge of getting after twenty years? Had he gone back on heroin due to the isolation of being in lockdown for more than a year? These questions matter to me, even though I know ultimately they are irrelevant. He went back to the addiction that he seemed to have kicked, and now he’s gone.
It just seems so unfair. To Williams, who was certain to get the Emmy for his work on Lovecraft Country before this, and frankly to the world. Because the reason the world is mourning Williams is because he was one of the greatest actors in history. One could say he was HBO’s gay Denzel Washington, but that’s not fair to Williams. Washington is one of the greatest actors ever, but there’s no point in his career that he could’ve tackled some of the roles Williams did and made his own.
I partially celebrated them over the past two weeks in my acknowledgement of Williams’ eventual Emmy. And I think it’s fair to say that the entire world will never forget Omar Little, the character that launched Williams to stardom. So in order to pay tribute to him, I’d like to examine the next role he ended up playing on HBO: Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire.
Boardwalk Empire was in many ways a frustrating series for me: I thought it had the seeds of greatness in it, particularly in its first two seasons. But after the stunning of Jimmy Darmody at the end of Season 2, I never thought the series was the same. (At the time, I had no way of knowing that Jimmy’s death was not something the creators wanted to do: Michael Pitt, the actor who played him, was so much trouble behind the scenes that they couldn’t deal with him any longer. That reputation would continue in future roles.) One of the constants, however, was Williams’s memorable work as Chalky: the leader of the black union and criminal enterprises in Atlantic City, someone who was disregarded because of the color of his skin. Only Nucky Thompson ever treated him as an equal.
Chalky was the complete opposite of Omar. A family man, respected in his own community, and someone who had power in a way Omar never did. In the second episode in Season 2, Chalky was arrested. He sat in his cell and looked at a book. No one went near him, except for one inmate — also black — who kept badgering him about what he was reading. Chalky said it was Tom Sawyer. The inmate kept haranguing him for most of the episode. Then a fellow prisoner beat his haranguer to a pulp. Only then does Chalky ask him the name of the book — the prisoner tells him it’s David Copperfield. So much about White’s character is revealed in that scene — and it’s a testament to his power that later that same season, this same inmate becomes a loyal follower of White. (He remains faithful until a struggle for power between White and another, more urban black boss challenges him.)
Another reason I couldn’t stay faithful to Boardwalk Empire was because of a major flaw in a storyline involved him in the fourth season. For the past three seasons, White has maintained the façade of being a pillar of the black community. He’s happily married and his daughter is about to get engaged to a college man. Then during the fourth season, he inexplicably begins an affair with a blues singer named Daughter, someone who previous had been loyal to this boss Valentin Narcisse (an exquisite character portrayal by Jeffrey Wright). In the final episode of Season 4, Chalky and Valentin have their final confrontation that is supposed to end with Valentin. In a tragic accident, Chalky’s own daughter ends up killed and Chalky loses everything. The last scenes showing him sitting on a porch, just another poor — well, I won’t say it — really hurt, almost as much as the inevitable fate of the man who shot his child.
I watched Michael K. Williams on TV for nearly two decades and I never saw him once give an inauthentic performance. Even when you couldn’t truly believe in the writing of the series — which was rare- Williams made it work. It’s unfair the Academy only started to recognize his genius in the last several years — everybody on The Wire got shut out and far too many actors on Boardwalk Empire were as well — but the balance was slowly being redressed. He’d gotten nominated for his work in HBO’s biopic Bessie in 2015. He’d been deservedly nominated for his work as convict Freddy Knight in the superb limited series The Night Of where he played a convict who takes Riz Ahmed’s character under his wing in Rikers, for better and for worse. And he had earned his nod for playing the father of one of the Central Park Five in Netflix’s When They See Us. The win he seems certain to get for playing Montrose in Lovecraft Country seemed less a lifetime achievement award, but the first prize in what seemed sure to be greater things to come.
Television and the world will have a gaping hole in it now that Williams is gone. But his body of work remains. It seems hollow to say it considering that he’s not there, but when we watch The Wire — or anything else he did — we’ll always know he mattered. Anyone who can create such a character will never truly be forgotten and Williams created a world of them.