Michael K. Williams in Brooklyn in 2021.
Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for ABA
From the first line of the introduction to his memoir, Scenes From My Life, actor and activist Michael K. Williams addresses the reader with stark honesty and resolve.
“Way before I was anything or anyone, I was an addict,” he wrote. “That was my identity, what people thought of me, if they thought of me at all. Into my mid-20s, I was on the verge of being discarded, like so many of my brothers and sisters who never got a chance to be something else. But through God’s grace, I am still here.”
Williams as Montrose Freeman in HBO’s Lovecraft Country.
Unfortunately, Michael Kenneth Williams isn’t here anymore. He was found dead in his home of a drug overdose on Sept. 6 last year.
Michael Kenneth Williams and Dominic Dupont at the season 6 premiere of Vice on HBO in 2018.
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images
But the actor leaves behind a legacy of amazing characters: Omar Little from The Wire, the streetwise, uncompromising robber of drug dealers; 1920s-era gangster Albert “Chalky” White on Boardwalk Empire; top dog Riker’s Island inmate Freddie Knight in The Night Of and abusive, closeted gay father Montrose Freeman on Lovecraft Country.
He also produced a gripping, revelatory memoir, completed weeks after his death, detailing a long struggle with addiction and self-doubt.
Dominic Dupont, Williams’ nephew, said he copes with his uncle’s unexpected death by honoring this legacy as an actor and activist.
“It’s just understanding that…Michael would have wanted this,” Dupont said. “He would have wanted us to elevate this conversation about what it is to turn pain into art.”
Williams’ co-author, Jon Sternfeld, said the two worked on the book for more than two years, talking extensively about the actor’s life in recorded interviews. His death came about a month before the manuscript was due.
“I started out helping him with something, and I ended up being in charge of his legacy,” said Sternfeld, who has co-written books with Senators Tom Daschle and Trent Lott and author/advocate Jim St. Germain.
“To his credit, he was very open from the beginning,” he said. “One of the things he talked about a lot was how young men, especially young Black men, were not taught to get out there with their feelings and be vulnerable. And he, like, wanted to be a demonstrator of that.”
Turning pain into art
“I was 22 years old when a music video changed my life…I cannot overstate how important [Janet Jackson’s] Rhythm Nation was to my lost and aching 22-year-old self. It spoke to the man I was and the boy I had been…I too wore my pain and loneliness like skin. I too was desperate for someone to reach out…I was seeing myself on the television for the first time. This was not a music video. It was a g—–n earthquake.”
— Michael K. Williams, Scenes From My Life
Scenes From My Life tells a story which could have been a movie on its own. Raised in a Brooklyn housing project, Williams started as a dancer and model — inspired by dancing along to the Rhythm Nation video until he knew all the moves, and eventually landing jobs with artists like Crystal Waters and Madonna. He thought his performing life was over when his face was slashed during a bar fight. But instead, it led to an acting career playing legendarily tough-yet-sensitive Black men – bringing dignity and a compelling presence to the kind of characters who are often overlooked and underestimated in the real world.
Ironically, Williams grew up as a very different person than the tough characters he played; Sternfeld said the actor remembered that when he first landed the role as Omar, he was worried that people wouldn’t accept him as a gay stickup man who was feared by everyone.
“He’s like, everybody who grew up with me knew that I was this scaredy cat who liked to dance or who wore bow ties to church,” the co-author said. “He was definitely a bullied kid. And they mocked him for his interest in the arts. So he would hang out with girls or younger boys, because he felt like he couldn’t hang [with his peers]. And that’s a big part of the book.”
The hazard of normalizing abnormality
The memoir has showbusiness stories: What it was like working with Tupac Shakur on the 1996 film Bullet; impressing Nicolas Cage with a death scene in Martin Scorsese’s film Bringing Out the Dead; getting cast as Omar on The Wire.
But the book spends much more time on how Williams was shaped by his early years. He notes how growing up in a neighborhood filled with poverty and violence leads to people treating such circumstances as ordinary and expected; they don’t realize how traumatizing such events are, because they are so common.
Williams tells a story in the book about going back into a movie theater moments after a shooting to retrieve a marijuana-filled joint he had dropped while fleeing the scene. Standing outside and lighting up, he was surprised to realize his hands were shaking.
“That kind of situation was so normal to me, but my body was telling me, No Michael, this is not normal,” he wrote. “There’s the trauma of life in the projects, and there’s the survivors’ means of processing it. This kind of violence is so rampant, so habitual, that we put on blinders just to get through the day. We normalize the abnormal.”
His nephew, Dupont, noted another poignant contrast, detailed in the book: although accessing memories of past trauma helped make his characters more realistic – Williams reveals he was molested twice before he reached high school – it also made maintaining his sobriety more difficult.
“That was a sacrifice for Mike, and he knew that,” Dupont said. “That is how he poured life into these characters. Pouring life into these characters meant that he would pour pain and trauma into them.”
An actor and activist
Dupont was convicted of murder after defending his twin brother in a fight at age 19. He served 20 years, developing a reputation as a model prisoner, and Williams stayed connected to him. After Dupont’s sentence was commuted in 2017, they worked together to raise awareness about at-risk kids.
Dupont’s experiences became the core of a documentary Williams produced with Vice on HBO about a generation of Black youth locked behind bars called Raised in the System. When Dupont was released from jail – a moment captured in the film — he and Williams screened it around the country to jump-start discussions about criminal justice and policing.
Dupont said such activism came naturally to his uncle. “For as long as I can remember, my entire life…no matter what he was going through, he was always concerned that someone else was going through something worse than him,” he said. “And [he wondered], how could he help?”
Things seemed to be going well last year, Dupont said, when Williams suddenly stopped answering texts, which was a troubling sign. “What also alarmed me, was that I talked to Michael every single day since I was released from prison,” Dupont added. “Every. Single. Day.”
Dupont and his wife got into Williams’ apartment, discovered his body and called 911. “We touched him. He was cold. At that point we said, ‘He’s deceased.'”
Both Dupont and Sternfeld said they had no idea Williams had relapsed. Sternfeld said Williams talked often about being one slip away from losing everything.
“He was very grounded in the fact that even making it to 54 — which is how old he was when he passed — was a miracle, considering what he had fought through,” Sternfeld said. “So even though he didn’t know he was going to die in September, he did have a sense that maybe he wasn’t long for this world. I mean, he never said it directly. But there was something about his urgency; how he had finally discovered who he was.”