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The Legacy of Michael K. Williams
Welcome to “Scenes I Can’t Stop Thinking About,” a new series discussing—you guessed it—scenes I can't stop thinking about. First up: the magic of Michael K. Williams.
My wife and I have very different sleep habits. She has trouble falling asleep, and because she prefers some background noise while she sleeps, she prefers to have the TV on.
I, on the other hand, am a Little Lord Fauntleroy when it comes to my sleepy time: I’m extremely sensitive to light, and the only sound I can tolerate is white noise. My brain is incapable of tuning out any other sound; if it’s a show or a movie I’ve seen or a song I’ve heard a million times, my brain goes Hey I know this one! and wants to pay attention. If it’s something brand-new, my brain goes Ooh, I wonder what’s gonna happen next?! and wants to pay attention.
We’ve worked out a staggered bedtime routine: since my wife goes to bed earlier than I do, she leaves the TV on to help her fall asleep, and I turn it off whenever I’m ready to go to bed. By that point, she’s usually deep enough asleep that she doesn’t need the TV on anymore, and if she’s not, she’ll go out to the couch so she doesn’t disturb me. (We call it “shift change,” it’s very cute.)
I find it overwhelming trying to keep up with new TV shows—I just started watching Columbo, if that tells you anything—but thanks to our wonky sleep schedules, I don’t really need to be. I catch snippets of all sorts of different shows while I’m getting ready to go to sleep (read: putting on my big Victorian-era nightshirt and sleep bonnet), and I use those snippets to determine whether or not I should give a show a try. And so it was with HBO’s Lovecraft Country.
From the baker’s dozen out-of-context scenes I saw, my impressions of Lovecraft Country are as follows: 1) I do not understand what’s happening; 2) I don’t think I care to understand what’s happening, and; 3) Jonathan Majors has a very anachronistic appearance. Every photo of him looks like he just time-traveled from 1955, which actually works for this show because it’s set in the 1950s. Based on these impressions, I concluded that the show doesn’t seem like my particular cup of tea and was at peace with my decision not to watch it. My wife loved it, though, and it became one of her go-to shows: she’d put it on in the background when she was getting ready to fall asleep or when she was working on her gardening, and sometimes she had it on just to rewatch it.
One Saturday morning, a month or two after Michael K. Williams died last September, I was in the kitchen making a cup of coffee and my wife was in the living room watching TV and working on her plants. At first I didn’t even pay attention to what she was watching, but then I heard Moses Sumney singing.
“And the sound of the void / Flows through your body, undestroyed.”
It was one of those moments when a fragment of a song comes out of nowhere and just…captures you. It’s difficult to describe a moment like that to someone who’s never experienced it before, but when it happens, something about that fragment—the lyrics, the way they’re delivered, the notes, the harmony behind them, whatever it is—goes beyond just the parts of the brain that we usually use to hear and process music. Like a splinter breaking off from a larger body and lodging itself under your skin, that little sliver of a song penetrates and burrows somewhere deeper. It knocks something loose emotionally; for a brief moment you’re not just hearing the song, you’re feeling it.
At first, the acoustic guitar sounds a little like Spanish jazz-adjacent noodling, but then Sumney’s vocals come in and provide a sense of purpose and direction. And when he reaches that line, everything suddenly clicks into place. His falsetto starts to climb; it’s not quite soaring over the guitar part yet, but it’s comfortably perched on top of it. The two parts combine to create this beautiful harmony that feels melancholic but not despairing, like a break in the clouds on a dreary day. A brief glimmer of something better; a reminder that that something better will have to wait.
It was enough to make me stop what I was doing and stand in the doorway of the living room. I almost asked my wife to pause it so I could get the episode details and track the song down on IMDB later. But then I looked at the TV and saw Michael K. Williams and suddenly it seemed more important to just…watch.
I had no context for this scene. I didn’t know anything about the characters or why—or even if—the scene was important. It should have meant nothing to me. If Michael K. Williams was still alive and well when this scene came on that Saturday morning, I probably would have glossed over it and told myself This isn’t for me, but I’ll catch him in his next movie or show. But I saw Williams on that screen and I felt a wave of emotions: sadness at his passing, of course, and regret that he wasn’t able to get the help he needed to overcome his struggles with addiction. But I also felt a sense of profound guilt at having turned down so many opportunities to properly appreciate him while he was still alive. In that moment, it seemed like I needed to pay my respects, and the best way to do that was by taking the time to watch him act: not as a character within a story, but as Michael K. Williams, the person.
The scene is riveting and beautiful and haunting. It’s a lamentation: Montrose (Williams’ character) is a gay black man in Jim Crow America, which means his life is an endless struggle for survival. His survival is predicated on his remaining invisible: he always has to be on guard, hiding or obscuring anything that marks him as different, because differences are noticeable, and being noticed is fatal. But the things that make Montrose noticeable are also what make him unique. They are what make him him. Denying these parts of himself may help him survive, but what good is survival if you aren’t allowed to live?
It’s also a rebirth. A drag show is the last place Montrose should be if he wants to keep his secret, and at first he just watches forlornly as everyone gets to be themselves and express themselves in ways he cannot. He knows it’s dangerous to stay, but he can’t leave. And in this scene, surrounded by people who are free to be who they are, we see him slowly, hesitantly give in and claim some of that freedom for himself.
The drums grow more frenetic and Sumney’s vocals gather intensity, no longer just perched atop the instruments but soaring above it all. As the song reaches its pulsing, ethereal climax, full of ecstasy and sorrow, Montrose completes his transformation: hoisted aloft by partygoers, eyes closed in sheer bliss. But just as he gives himself permission to finally let go, the crowd deposits him on the ground once again; for a brief moment, their joy and his were intertwined, but those moments never last. He has to learn how to make his own joy. Soon the mask will come back down; the clouds will again obscure the sun. Yet for a brief moment, something better is visible for Montrose—not just survival, but life.
That’s how the scene unfolds in the context of the show, anyway. But I didn’t know any of that. All I saw was Michael K. Williams conveying a full emotional metamorphosis without uttering a single word. Just facial expressions and body language, movement and stillness; his sadness and trepidation giving way to optimism and relief, then warmth, and, finally, euphoria. When he finally breaks through at the song’s climax, it’s hard not to feel his joy. After years of bit parts he broke through as Omar on The Wire, but he felt unworthy of his success, which led to relapse and a deepening struggle with addiction. His refusal to be pigeonholed or typecast probably cost him roles in the short term, but more than a decade later, there he was: doing what he truly loved, inhabiting a deeply complex and layered character in a way that few actors ever could. Finally free. His smile is his character’s, yes, but it’s also his own.
That scene demonstrates the power of Michael K. Williams. I didn’t need to know or even care about the story; simply watching him at work was enough. Not a bad legacy to leave behind.