The fictional complexity of Omar
The beauty of the character that Michael K. Williams brought to life on The Wire was his extraordinary complexity. Omar Little was a Black man who stalked the streets of Baltimore wearing a swashbuckling duster and carrying a deadly sawed-off shotgun. He was a killer and a thief. But he was also funny and eloquent.
His ebony-coloured skin had the luxurious lustre of velvet, but its perfection was interrupted by a violent scar. Omar exuded the sort of stone-faced masculinity that for so long defined what it means to be a man along with the threatening aura that has become associated specifically with Black men. Yet Omar also had a gentle touch for his boyfriend about whom he unabashedly expressed his affection. Omar sneered. Omar cried.
The character of Omar was impossible to sum up in a few words, and it’s the impulse to use long, dense paragraphs to accurately describe the many conflicting aspects of his personality, his thinking and his soul that made him one of the most enduring elements of the critically acclaimed HBO series.
Omar was a fiction, but he was beloved because his complexity made him seem real. Omar was beloved because he was a fiction.
Williams, 54, was found dead in his Brooklyn home on Monday. And it is a testament to his talent and sensitivity that he was able to bring so much depth to Omar. This character, who made it his mission to steal from the drug dealers who ruled whole swaths of Baltimore, could also be lauded for chipping away at stereotypes about gay men.
In Williams’s rendering of Omar, there was a broader story about stereotypes and prejudices and our stubborn need to place people into either the darkness or the light. We want to sort folks into categories: good or bad, innocent or guilty, deserving or undeserving, perfect or cancelled. White or suspicious.
Within Omar, a Black man could be many things. He could be hated and loved. He could terrorise, but he could also be tender. And the public not only accepted all those contradictions, they luxuriated in them when they reflexively shun nuances in real life.
In an imaginary space, it’s easier to see the humanity in others. We’re primed to suspend disbelief, which means that we’re ready to put away our assumptions and prejudices. It’s a relief to slip off those burdens that weigh us down despite our best efforts to stay light and free.
Omar’s angels and demons made him multidimensional, and that made him seem real in a fictionalised universe. But Omar was also an aberration. Because as real as his failings and strengths might seem, the truth is that he was as fantastical as a Marvel character. The likelihood that such a flawed but compelling Black man — one with his own moral code — might actually walk unimpeded among us is on par with the Hulk living next door.
Seeing the good in Omar required an enormous extension of good will from the public. And audiences gave it to him because they had nothing to lose or to fear. There was no risk that this fearsome character would be soon creating mayhem in their neighbourhood. People could revel in his flouting of the law and believe in the authenticity of his kindness. He was both allowed and embraced because he was contained. He was fiction.
It is more difficult making room for the wounded or the righteously avenging in real life. It’s harder to make peace with Black and brown agitators even when the laws that have been broken are more like twigs than tree trunks, even when what is actually been broken isn’t a law but a glass ceiling or a velvet rope or dusty, old tradition. In the real world, Black men selling loose cigarettes like Eric Garner or accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill like George Floyd can barely get their due as flawed humans — let alone as defiant heroes.
Omar marched down the street wielding a sawed-off shotgun and people found him redeemable. Phliando Castile had a permit for his gun and was killed by a police officer that a jury then acquitted. Trayvon Martin was a kid carrying candy when he was killed and a toxic public tried to use his childish missteps and impetuousness as evidence of malevolence. Ahmaud Arbery was jogging and made the mistake of being curious about an empty house.
Fictional stories thrive in the grey. The culture rewards those who bring complicated people to life. We give them statuettes and applause and free clothes and jewellery. We reserve special accolades for fictionalised outsiders, the people-of-colour whose challenges and banalities are turned into moving narratives, the LGBTQ folks whose loves and struggles come with good cinematography and a memorable soundtrack.
But in the real world, the grey zone can remain an exclusive club. This safe space in which imperfections are accepted and mistakes come with mulligans is readily available for some but not all. Those most in need of asylum, a bit of cheerleading and a few simple acts of kindness are too often boxed out.
Since Omar first appeared on screen in 2002, the cultural willingness to accommodate complexity has shrivelled. People are either good or bad. They cannot be both. Perhaps there’s no room in real life for complexity because we have gorged ourselves on the fictionalised version of it. Perhaps we fear recognising imperfection in others because it will force us to reckon with our own flaws. Perhaps we have become so convinced of the bad in others that we don’'t even recognise the good when we see it. Perhaps we have created a template in our mind of what good looks like and it doesn’t look like Omar.
Michael K. Williams lived alongside us in a world that insists on simplicity. He was the much lauded actor. He was a man fighting addiction. His death is reportedly being investigated as an overdose. He was complicated. He created a character that reminded us that a simple existence is pure fiction.
• Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press