Earlier this week, Michael K. Williams, the actor who so memorably portrayed Omar Little on The Wire, admitted in an interview with the New Jersey Star-Ledger that he had been leading a double life. While playing the Robin Hood of the modern underclass – a shotgun-wielding robber of drug dealers with a penchant for Honey Nut Cheerios – he was privately partaking in those very same drugs. Williams explains that he became addicted to cocaine in 2004 – two years into The Wire’s run – and went on days-long drug benders, stalking around Newark (New Jersey’s closest Baltimore equivalent) looking to get high. Eventually, like so many drug addicts before him, he went on to find God, as the Reverend Ronald Christian of Irvington, New Jersey’s Christian Love Church helped him kick his self-destructive habit.
This story is, on the face of it, not really unique. Williams was well aware of the problem his drug use posed, explaining how “it was just a matter of time before I got caught and my business ended up on the cover of a tabloid or I went to jail or, worse, I ended up dead.” There was nothing really transgressive in his attitudes toward drug use. What one does find interesting, however, is the fact that Williams had lived out his drug-using life as Omar. The character he played so memorably on television became a sort of shadow self. “No one who was in my circle, who knew me as Mike, was allowing me to get high. I had to slip away to do drugs,” he said, explaining why he went by the pseudonym during his binges.
What does it mean that “Michael K. Williams” lived out a secret life as “Omar, Drug User”? Certainly Williams, a graduate of the National Black Theatre, an accomplished dancer, and oft-employed actor does not share any clear similarities to the character he played on television. Nonetheless, there was something in his character that appealed to Williams’ id. To try to extricate what Williams may have seen in Omar would be the worst sort of armchair psychology, of course, but is it fair to use Williams’ experiences to ask a few questions about the intersection of crime, sexuality, and drug use?
Before we go any further, it is crucial to mention that one of the more compelling aspects of Omar Little’s character was his homosexuality. Existing within the traditionally homophobic culture of the young black urban underclass, Omar was what we might call a Gay Scofflaw, an anti-hero living on the fringes of society whose sexual identity is not a function of self-hatred or deviant perversion, as homosexuality has so long been portrayed in American culture, but simply as one of many personal characteristics. Put another way, Omar Little is more Chris Keller than Tom Ripley. He’s a smooth operator with a consistent moral compass and a sexual identity that just is.
Interestingly, while there haven’t been many famous Gay Scofflaws in American popular culture, Omar Little is likely not the most prominent example of this rare archetype. Rather, that would be…