The late Michael K. Williams brought the stories of fictional — and real — queer figures to life through some of his most important roles.
There’s a unique relationship between being Black and queer. Many of us grew up being told you can only be one or the other; that being both was somehow impossible. But in reality, it was something that was never understood and didn’t want to be seen in the binary of society — whether in real life or onscreen. But choosing to look away doesn’t make us exist any less or mean that our stories don’t matter, and it’s actors like the late Michael K. Williams that brought them to life.
Williams, who passed away at the age of 54 on Monday, September 6, will always be remembered for his legacy as a captivating actor, and his queer performances are a crucial part of that legacy. Growing up in Brooklyn, Williams was surrounded by the LGBTQ+ community. He got his start on the dance scene at 22, and was exposed to the strife and pain the HIV epidemic caused loved ones. This is what allowed Williams to connect to these roles in such a way that translated so well to the audiences watching him, sparking emotion, understanding, and empathy for those who identify as queer. It’s so rare to find actors that can achieve this, and he was extraordinary in using these roles to explore the spectrum of being Black and gay, even though he didn’t identify as gay himself.
His portrayal of Omar Little on the critically-acclaimed crime drama The Wire encapsulates this. Omar was a gay Baltimore stick-up man who frequently robbed street-level drug dealers. The character was gritty and took no-nonsense, but had a tenderness you couldn’t help but fall in love with. Williams’ layered portrayal of Omar also humanized him and, as a result, redefined what it meant to be a Black gay man. Most depictions of Black gay men in media up until that point were limited to being a punchline or caricature. Omar was a rare and refreshing representation: a complex antihero you simply respected.
Orphaned at a young age, Omar’s grandmother Josephine instilled a moral code in him that would guide him throughout his life. When Omar was nine, his brother Anthony and an older boy robbed a man at a bus stop. He questioned the value of robbing the man and forced the older boy to return the money they stole. With a Robin Hood-like code, Omar began sticking up drug dealers in the early 1990s, and later met his partner in crime and boyfriend Brandon Wright in season one. Omar would have three boyfriends throughout the show’s run: Dante (season two through three) and Renaldo (season four). The intimacy he shared with them was in stark contrast with the fear he instilled in others.
Over the years throughout his career, Williams brought more multidimensional Black gay characters to life. In 2017, he would go on to portray the late HIV-positive activist Ken Jones in the ABC mini-series When We Rise. Seeing him in that role saved me at one of the lowest moments in my life — the special event aired one year after I was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2016.
For this role it wasn’t about the money for Williams — it was personal.
“My reasoning for wanting to take this particular role is way more personal than me being afraid of not eating,” Michael K. Williams said in a 2019 interview with Plus Magazine. “I would have done this for free. It was an honor to tell these stories.”
“My nephews, Michale Frederick Williams and Eric Williams, both are deceased. This is my blood. They were two gay men that I loved to death,” he added. “My best friend who taught me the streets in Brooklyn was a lesbian, Robin Henry. She’s still alive. I danced in the house music world, danced background for Crystal Waters. I was humbled and grateful to be able to tell a story of an American hero like Ken Jones.”
In 2020, Williams was cast as the estranged father Montrose Freeman in HBO’s sci-fi drama Lovecraft Country. Montrose was a survivor: he survived the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, as well as the constant abuse of his father trying to toughen him up as an adolescent. In the episode “Rewind 1921,” Montrose is forced to relive all of this, along with watching his childhood friend — and secret crush — Thomas die during the Tulsa Massacre, when he’s transported back in time.
Although the series never quite identifies Montrose’s sexuality explicitly, that’s part of the pain the character represents. He was never allowed to explore and be his whole self. He was told by his family and community what Black masculinity should look like, and anything that didn’t fit that binary he pushed aside to survive in the already dangerous Jim Crow era. Williams’ portrayal of Montrose was not only relatable, but the vessel for a constant theme of generational curses in the series. That pain he felt continued when his son was born as he tried to toughen him up the same way his father did him, ultimately resulting in the two’s complicated relationship.
However, there is a moment of sanctuary for Montrose that comes in the episode “Strange Case.” While at a low point during the episode, he turns to his secret lover Sammy at the Cabrini Green projects for a sense of fleeting comfort. Sammy asks a beaten and bruised Montrose what’s wrong, but Montrose doesn’t reply and proceeds to initiate sex with Sammy. Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion” plays during the scene, adding to Montrose’s theme of shame and internal struggle. Though they are having intercourse, the lack of emotional intimacy is evident; the boundaries are still in place.
In a later scene, Sammy’s friends join them while they get ready for a drag show, and it’s revealed the two have never shared a kiss. Later at the club, Montrose is mesmerized by Sammy’s drag performance and the acceptance that fills the air. For the first time in the series we see Montrose let go of the internal battle and embrace his queerness. During the euphoric montage, he dances and seems truly happy, as the scene ends with him kissing Sammy for the first time. Williams’ performance as Montrose resonated with viewers and critics alike, earning him his fifth Emmy nomination.
Each of these characters were distinct and Michael K. Williams outdid himself each time. He allowed the world to see Black LGBTQ+ people as individuals with desires, fears, passion, love, and anger through these roles. His commitment to the craft and the respect he showed these stories were truly something special.
The notion in Hollywood is that it is risky and possibly career-ending for Black men to take on such roles as these. Williams’ career shows the true strength and talent required to leave a legacy that evokes change. His portrayal of the neighborhood stick-up man, HIV human rights activist, or a father battling internal and external factors that forced him to bottle up parts of his identity, adds to his legacy and the advancement of queer stories told in media.
Daric L. Cottingham (he/him) is a Black Southern queer multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. He is from Ruston, Louisiana, and grew up in Dallas, surrounded by streetwear, sneaker, and hip-hop culture. This environment fueled his interests, which lead to his passion for pop culture news. Daric loves analyzing the intersection of society and culture in a nuanced digestible way.