Niela Orr | Omar is coming LRB September 10, 2021
The death of actor Michael K. Williams, at the age of 54, was reported on September 6. He had been found unconscious in his Brooklyn penthouse. Williams was a major player in Thread, one of the most in-depth analyzes of American culture on what happened to the country following September 11. There are references throughout the series to “when the towers fell,” a devious but obvious allusion to both the collapse of the World Trade Center and the demolition of high-rise housing projects in Baltimore. The show highlighted the myriad ways that funding for America’s ill-conceived and ill-fated war on drugs has been diverted into the war on terror.
Williams portrayed Omar Little, a “robber” who steals from drug dealers, a moving target with a loyal moral code. Innocents and thugs alike announce “Omar is coming!” When Little appears braggingly through the alleys and dead ends of West Baltimore. He spends most of the time hiding, watching and waiting. There is not much that escapes him. Looking out of the windows of dilapidated buildings, Omar was like a fusion of Malcolm X as seen in Don Hogan Charles Photo From the leader peering through the blinds of his home in Queens and Detroit Red, the street con artist Malcolm was before joining the Nation of Islam.
Like many actors attached to their profession, Michael K. Williams has led many lives. Born and raised in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, he got into trouble in his youth but then turned to the National Black Theater in Harlem. “I was once the kid that no one thought would be successful,” he said in a maintenance with Nessa Diab a few years ago, “so I decided to use my platform to be a beacon of light for children who were a little lost, like I was”.
Before his first roles, in Thread, Boardwalk Empire, Hap and Leonard and, more recently, Lovecraft Country, he had pieces on The Sopranos and Law and order. And before that he was a backup dancer for Madonna, George Michael and CeCe Peniston. He has said more than once that Janet Jackson’s funky and austere ‘Rhythm Nation’ video (1989) was life changing. “I saw myself,” he told Diab. “There was Tyrin Turner in this dark factory, lost, unable to find the way out, and here is Janet telling him it’s okay… be who you are and be strong.”
He went to buzzing industrial buildings where house music was blaring through speakers as tall as professional basketball players. In 1994, he appeared and choreographed the video clip for Crystal Waters “100% pure love”. Her look is retro-spy chic from the 1990s, and Williams is dressed in a generic dark gray suit and tie. It’s the costume of a person you’re supposed to believe adamantly – an actuary, a federal agent, a corporate drone. And yet he oscillations. It lodges, mixing the phrases of African dance, vogue, ballet gestures and the pompous steps of an aerobics class. That was his style, briefly exposed: he could give you a traditionally masculine hardbody bravado – he then appeared as a badass in hip-hop videos in the early 2000s – but he wasn’t afraid to take over. sweetness either. He always brought to the smallest rooms an unparalleled combination of ferocity and vulnerability.
In all of his roles – whether as Omar, or Bessie Smith’s husband, Jack Gee, or Robert in Twelve years a slave – he took this swing with him, swinging in the dance of an intimate scene. He narrowed his eyes, or smiled, narrowed his mouth like that, or put some bass in his voice. His hoarse tone sounded as if it came from the throat of a bossa nova maestro smeared with cigarette smoke, his expression changes as subtle as the tap on a squeeze pack of Newport 100. In every performance, just as in Waters video, he metaphorically loosened his to attach and unfolded his shirt, showing the tenderness under the macho drag and making the costume comfortable enough to move around.
One of my favorites sequences in Thread comes from season one, episode five, ‘The Pager’. Omar draws a map in a corner of the earth for his two accomplices. The stick-up team is preparing to trap a few low-level dealers. “That’s the trap over there, the houses,” said Omar, taking a puff of his cigarette. “Rats always run to holes when in danger. Omar’s boyfriend asks him if he is “in danger”. “Nah man,” he said, “I’m just a nigga with a plan, that’s all. We cut to a wide shot of Omar’s van, then to a judge entering a dimly lit room, apologizing for getting lost in the wrong hallway.
The scene takes place in a different kind of dark factory – an abandoned utility building that the Baltimore Police use as a center of operations. The cops hope to get the judge to sign a wiretap affidavit so they can monitor a police lieutenant’s pager. The juxtaposition of Omar planning his attack and police maneuvers to “get up on the wire” is no accident. The way the scene is set up almost suggests that the judge was turned over by Omar’s rudimentary map.
Thread is clearly a surveillance program, but it’s also about sousveillance. The term was coined by the Canadian inventor and theorist of technology Steve mann in 2002 to describe “vigilant vigilance from below” as “citizens watching over their government and police”. Mann explained that the sousveillance was originally performed “by the body camera formed by the eye and the body recording device made up of the mind and brain”. In the first season of Thread, a young drug dealer breaks a CCTV camera by throwing a stone at it (shadows of David and Goliath?); an abridged version of the scene appears in the show opening credits. Always attentive to both the police and the henchmen of the dealers, Omar is an avatar of sousveillance.
In Dark Matters: On Watching The Darkness, Simone Browne expands Mann’s idea into a concept she calls “dark subveillance” which “presents imaginaries that are … hopeful for another way of being,” and can be seen as a “way of being.” locate the tactics used to get out of sight. , and the strategies used in the flight to liberation from slavery as necessarily those of understanding ”. It includes spirituals and black dance forms under the umbrella of dark sousveillance, as well as other “black performative practices and creative acts”. I think taking action could be one too. Whether in Omar or Robert, the slave planning an escape from the ship by Twelve years a slave, Michael K. Williams chose roles that took seriously the power of looking back and dreaming differently. If Omar was the emblem of some sort of sousveillance, Williams was the camera, looking not only at his character’s fighters but also beyond the screen; he returned the gaze of viewers who watched him every Sunday evening.
In a short for HBO and the Atlantic released in 2018, the actor sips a smoothie and asks, “Do you think I’m stuck?” A differently dressed version of himself, sitting at the other end of the couch and stroking a furball, replies, “I don’t know, do you think this cat is cataloged?” Soon several other versions of himself appear in the room. One, in black du-rag, holding a sawed-off shotgun, interrupts the philosophical twists and turns: “Dude, this whole metaphor is bullshit, yo. You hear me? Think not everyone has a role to play? Eh? Do you think a white boy could have played Omar?
“I chose these roles. Me! I have made this path for myself, ”says the first Williams. “If I was cataloged I would be in jail or dead. But I am here. I went out, I got out. When he got stuck in a park in New York last year he was participating in the dark sousveillance work in progress, beaming with joy as a daily practice to achieve and enjoy freedom.