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An Appreciation

What Michael K. Williams taught me about being a man

He was an icon for Black queer men, but he was also a beacon for what’s possible to ask of straight Black men

About 15 minutes into the third episode of The Wire, Omar Little is sitting on a stoop with two of his crew members. One of the men, Brandon, is under Omar’s arm, his head leaning on Omar’s chest. The second member, John, looks on uncomfortably. As the scene progresses, Omar and Brandon tenderly play with each other’s fingers, leading to Omar delivering a light forehead kiss and a tender caress of his chin.

By this point in the series, we’d already watched Omar, trademark shotgun in tow, and his posse rob a drug house. He’d been established as a snarling Rambo who struck fear in the hearts of everyone who heard his name in Baltimore. And now, the audience learned that he was gay, not as the crux of a plot twist played up for shock, but in a subtle moment of affection.

I was 22 when I saw that scene of Omar kissing Brandon, and it floored me. I had been catching up on the series after it had just ended a few months earlier in March 2008 — using a now-prehistoric version of Netflix to get the DVDs delivered to my door every three days or so. I’d grown up in Mississippi and gone to college in North Carolina and could probably count the number of openly gay men I’d met on my fingers and toes; a smaller number I’d call friends. The idea of someone like Omar, who, just an hour earlier I’d considered one of the most intimidating characters I’d seen on TV, as also being gay, was an epiphany.

A lot has and will be said about what Michael K. Williams, who was pronounced dead at 54 over the weekend, contributed to the world of acting, art and representation for the LGBTQ+ community. But he also helped me, a young Black man who is cisgender and heterosexual, understand masculinity and what it means for myself and those around me. I’d considered myself an ally and supporter of my LGBTQ+ friends, but Williams showed me how much further I had to go and what was possible with fullhearted and fearless love.

It would be sensationalist to say that one moment of Omar romantically loving another man undid two-plus decades of toxic masculinity, stereotypes about gay men, and ideas of what it means to be a man. But Williams’ portrayal of Omar and subsequent career changed me, reshaping what I believed about manhood.

Mainstream society had presented queerness and masculinity as polar opposites. Strong or muscle-bound men often portrayed gay characters for laughs or irony – I think about Terry Crews in Friday After Next, whose whole comedic presence was built on the idea that men who looked like him couldn’t lust after other men. Omar, though, stood in his truth and did so in a way that shed a light on many queer Black men. He broke stereotypes I’d allowed to coalesce into my consciousness without even realizing it.

Omar was a superhero on screen, having spaghetti Western standoffs, taking on drug lords and gunning down Stringer Bell. But when it was time to show Omar in love, Williams displayed a deep affection, revealing that even the most ruthless can be emotionally vulnerable. Williams would kiss, hold, caress and care for men on screen with his whole being.

He broke stereotypes I’d allowed to coalesce into my consciousness without even realizing it.

It’s important to mention the way Black men playing queer characters has been weaponized to amplify anti-gay bias. When Williams went on then-MTV personality Sway’s show on Hot 97 in 2003, the host called Williams kissing another man on screen repulsive and morally reprehensible (the two have since made peace, with Williams appearing on Sway’s show multiple times since). Williams’ portrayal of Omar brushed up against one of the more complicated and enduring battlefields among Black men: the idea of America’s obsession with “emasculating” the Black man.

In 2006, for instance, in the middle of The Wire’s popularity, comedian Dave Chappelle went on The Oprah Winfrey Show and delivered a speech about what he saw as Hollywood’s fascination with seeing Black men in dresses for comedy as a way to emasculate the men. It was a stance that I, at the time, saw as pro-Black without understanding how one can’t be pro-Black and anti-LGBTQ+. The same outrage is present in the way bad-father actors such as Lil Boosie have attacked Lil Nas X for spreading the mythical “gay agenda.” These acts of faux concern about things like “family values” and how Black men are positioning queerness as a detriment, especially in light of the way we equated queerness to emasculation, lack of manliness and weakness.

But neither Williams nor Omar was weak. Omar’s love of men didn’t emasculate him, just like Williams’ portrayal of a gay man didn’t make him less of a man. Omar loved men in the face of anti-gay bias that made him a target for the same hate crimes that killed his lover. Williams loved Omar in the face of a community that saw his portrayal as betrayal. Seeing those examples of strength helped me reckon with the ways I had allowed anti-gay bias to infect the ways I saw the LGBTQ+ community and folks I had proclaimed to love and embrace in my life.

Williams’ portrayal of Omar brushed up against one of the more complicated and enduring battlefields among Black men: the idea of America’s obsession with “emasculating” the Black man.

Williams’ entire career post-Wire was a testament to his fearless pursuit of showing the parts of us we’re scared to face, let alone show to millions on camera. As Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire, he was rage and survival in the face of a world that wanted him dead. As Bobby McCray in When They See Us, he was scared, insecure and trying to love his son the best he could. As Montrose Freeman, the Lovecraft Country role for which he could likely earn a posthumous Emmy, he is confused, conflicted and tormented by his internal anti-gay bias.

But Williams was at his most beautiful when he was himself. He got his start as a dancer and choreographer, touring with George Michael and Madonna. He loved to use his body to express himself with such freeness and happiness. Watching him dance, especially in the viral videos that would circulate online in recent years, was like watching someone who had broken the chains that hold so many men back from loving our bodies and the way we make them move. To smile with nothing left to hold us back. It’s these videos, as much as Williams’ iconic roles, that are his lasting images.

How does Williams become a Black queer icon? He loves those who are so often cast aside. He sees the fullness of people so often relegated to punchlines, violence and the worst of our cruelties. He holds men near on camera and off. And through all of this, takes the hands of men like me, shattering what we thought we knew about the world and rebuilding a brighter, better, more loving reality in its place.

David Dennis, Jr. is a senior writer at The Undefeated and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.