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Michael K. Williams passed away at the age of 54 on September 6, 2021, leaving behind a family and a body of work that is up there with some of the all-time greats from the medium. Throughout his acting career, which went back to 1995, Williams gave life to the likes of Omar Little on The Wire, Albert “Chalky” White on Boardwalk Empire, and dozens of others who felt like fully-realized and three-dimensional people rather than characters on a show or in a movie. As we mourn the loss of one of the best actors of his time, we should look back on Williams’ extensive library of shows and movies so that we can best remember the greatness of his craft. Here is just a sampling of the gifts Michael K. Williams had to offer us all.
The Wire (HBO Max)
David Simon’s HBO crime epic The Wire shows how the lives of those on opposite sides of the law and different neighborhoods of Baltimore, Maryland, are connected in one way or another, including series standout, Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), a modern-day Robin Hood in a trench-coat.
Why it’s worth watching: Not only is The Wire one of the greatest television dramas of all time, it also features Michael K. Williams’ best characters in Omar Little. A good man who does bad things to bad people, Omar was at times the funniest character on The Wire cast while others the most tragic of the bunch. It’s just a damn shame Williams never won an Emmy for this iconic performance.
Boardwalk Empire (HBO Max)
Set in Prohibition era Atlantic City, New Jersey, the HBO period crime drama Boardwalk Empire tells the story of the unforgettable characters who found a way to become not only profitable and successful with their various businesses but also feared for the manner in which they operate said businesses for better or worse.
Why it’s worth watching: Two years after he portrayed Omar Little for the final time (not counting the 2012 The Wire musical) Michael K. Williams played Albert “Chalky” White, a powerful African-American gangster with his hands in various cookie jars throughout Boardwalk Empire’s Atlantic City. Beloved in his own community but feared in others, Chalky was a dynamic character who appeared to always be one step ahead of the competition.
12 Years A Slave (Hulu)
Steve McQueen’s harrowing biographical drama 12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejofor) a free African-American man living in New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War, kicking off more than a decade in captivity and failed attempts to free himself from the shackles of the south.
Why it’s worth watching: There is a long list of tragic characters in 12 Years a Slave including Robert (Michael K. Williams), one of the men that Solomon Northup meets on the slave ship early on in the movie. Even though he’s only in the movie for a few minutes, Williams makes the most of his time and delivers a performance as a man willing to do anything to be free, even if he has to die in the process.
Lovecraft Country (HBO Max)
Set in the Jim Crow American South, the HBO horror drama series Lovecraft Country tells the story of Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he sets off on a journey to locate his missing father Montrose Freeman (Michael K. Williams), uncovering several monsters (both man and non-human) along the way.
Why it’s worth watching: One of the most beloved and talked about shows of 2020, Lovecraft Country was made all the better thanks to its brilliant cast that included Jurnee Smollett, Courtney B. Vance, and others in addition to Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams. Every one of the stars makes the most of their time in this mind-bending blend of human drama and supernatural horror.
When They See Us (Netflix)
Ava DuVernay’s 2019 Netflix limited series When They See Us tells the story of the 1989 Central Park jogger case in which five African-American and latino teenagers were falsely accused of brutally assaulting a white woman. This tragic series shows just how far some will go to solve a case even if it means doubling-down on those who are innocent.
Why it’s worth watching: Told over the course of four tense and emotionally raw episodes, When They See Us shows how false accusations built up by prejudice and misunderstanding can impact multiple lives, including the parents of the falsely accused, which were led by Michael K. Williams as Bobby McCray.
Gone Baby Gone (HBO Max)
Set in Boston, Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone centers on the disappearance of a four-year-old girl and tireless effort by local detective Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) to find her before the whole neighborhood is torn apart by the case.
Why it’s worth watching: With a cast that includes Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, Michelle Monaghan, Amy Ryan, and Michael K. Williams, it’s easy to see why Gone Baby Gone remains a highly-regarded crime drama 14 years after its release. Combine that with an intricate story where everyone feels both innocent and guilty and it just gets better.
The Night Of (HBO Max)
After being implicated in the murder of a young woman in New York City, Pakistani-American college student Nasir “Naz” Khan’s (Riz Ahmed) finds himself going through the criminal justice system in hopes of clearing his name.
Why it’s worth watching: Awaiting his trial, Naz is sent to Rikers Island where he meets Freddy Knight (Michael K. Williams) an influential prisoner who can make things happen to those living outside the jail’s walls just as much as he can to those wasting away in their cells. This morally ambiguous character is made all the more realistic thanks to Williams’ ability to be both warm and terrifying at the same time.
Hap And Leonard (Netflix)
Based on Joe R. Landsale novels of the same name, the Sundance TV crime comedy-drama series Hap and Leonard tells the story of two best friends — Hap Collins (James Purefoy) and Leonard Pine (Michael K. Williams) — who find themselves in a get-rich-quick scheme that turns out to be not as easy as they once thought.
Why it’s worth watching: Although it doesn’t receive as much acclaim as some of Michael K. Williams’ other crime shows, Hap and Leonard is one that shouldn’t be overlooked. Throughout the series’ three seasons, Williams’ Leonard is at times a hilarious character with a great deal of emotional depth while at others a complete mad man with an unforgettable temper.
Bessie (HBO Max)
One of the best movies on HBO Max, Bessie follows Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) as goes from an unknown blues singer in Tennessee to one of the most prominent and influential music artists of the early 20th Century, detailing the success and setbacks she experienced along the way.
Why it’s worth watching: The Primetime Emmy Award-winning biographical drama is anchored by the outstanding performance by Queen Latifah as the trailblazing Bessie Smith and Michael K. Williams as her husband and manager Jack Gee. The chemistry between these two is out of this world and makes the highs and lows of their marriage seem all the more real, no matter how hard some of it is to take.
When We Rise (Amazon Purchase)
The ABC limited series When We Rise chronicles the struggles — both personal and political — and successes of a various members of the LGBT community over the course of 45 years.
Why it’s worth watching: The large ensemble cast, which includes Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker, and Michael K. Williams playing various trailblazers in the LGBT community in different periods of time helps tell a well-rounded story about those who sacrificed so others could have a voice and the freedom to live their lives without fear of prosecution or persecution by society.
The Road (Pluto TV)
Based on Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning novel of the same name, John Hillcoat’s 2009 post-apocalyptic survival film The Road tells the story of a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they push towards the Southern coast in hopes of surviving a cataclysmic event while also keeping ahold of their humanity in the process.
Why it’s worth watching: Michael K. Williams is only in The Road for a few minutes, but his performance as the thief who is forced to give his clothes to the father and son after being caught stealing their cart is one that can’t be missed. This emotionally-gutting scene is difficult to watch but helps illustrate one’s need for survival in a dying world.
Inherent Vice (IMDb TV)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s neo-noir novel Inherent Vice tells the story of down-on-his-luck private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he attempts to get to the bottom of a mystery involving a wealthy real-estate tycoon set in the psychedelic world of 1970s Los Angeles.
Why it’s worth watching: Throughout Inherent Vice, Doc encounters one over-the-top character after another, including Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams), a member of the Black Guerrilla Family who hires him to hunt down a member of the Aryan Brotherhood who owes him big. And that is just one of the situations Doc finds himself wrapped up in throughout this sprawling affair.
There will never be anything that will take the place of Michael K. Williams, but each and every one of those movies and TV shows can help remind us of the amazing and versatile talent of one of the greatest actors of our time.
Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop yelling at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.
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