EXCLUSIVE: Michael K. Williams on defying thug typecasting and the ‘SuperFly’ reboot
As Omar on the iconic HBO series The Wire, Michael K. Williams defied stereotypes, shifting expectations about who a thug could be and how a gay man moved in the hood. Williams was so impactful that most of his nearly 100 roles, be it Chalky White of Boardwalk Empire or Jack Gee from the HBO film Bessie, are gangsters. And that’s no different with Scatter, his role in the upcoming SuperFly reboot, due out June 15.
Such typecasting might end and limit the careers of others but Williams has continued to bring something unexpected. He shared how he approaches each role with intention during an exclusive interview with TheGrio during a visit to the film’s Atlanta set back in February.
“When I started seeing that there was a pattern, I guess for lack of a better word, in the types of roles that I was being casted for, I was like ‘you know what Mike this is my vehicle, the urban character,’” Williams said.
Williams, who grew up in public housing in Brooklyn, New York, is very familiar with the terrain. “I know urban pretty damn well,” he said, “and I decided to wear it as a badge of honor. And, with that, I decided to bring some respect, dignity, empathy and compassion to these characters that people, that society, sees as menaces.”
Thanks to that compassion and empathy, Williams doesn’t play stereotypes, he plays people. “No one wakes up in the morning and says ‘I’m going to become a jailbird.’ You don’t aspire to do that,” he explained. “Those decisions are made out of desperation and there’s a series of bad choices and bad situations that makes a person believe that that’s their only way out. I’ve seen it far too many times [happen] to good people, to good strong-minded men and women who are intelligent and they took their gift and just turned to the streets because that’s all they saw or that’s all they felt they had. And I wanted to shed that type of light to my characters when I played them, my hood characters.”
That series of bad situations is put on full blast in his VICE docuseries, Raised in the System for HBO. In it, he shows how young people face incredible frustrations and impossible odds even before they can make decisions for themselves. These are the circumstances that contribute to substance abuse, illegal activity and chronic incarceration. So people don’t just arrive at these conditions accidentally. In his fictional portrayals, there is often a hint that there is a backstory, even if that backstory is rarely ever shown. It’s what Williams brought to Omar and what he continues to bring to other characters. It’s why he can show up on a set like SuperFly already in motion and contribute immediately.
SuperFly, for those unfamiliar, was, arguably, the standout Blaxploitation film. Its 1972 release starred Ron O’Neal as Harlem drug dealer Youngblood Priest who is trying to get out of the drug game to get from under “the man.” In this reboot helmed by Director X, who cut his teeth on music videos, Trevor Jackson, fresh off a successful stint as Aaron on Grown-ish, is Priest with some 2018 updates.
Age is a significant change. Jackson is just 21 compared to O’Neal’s 34 during the filming of the original. So Williams’s Scatter, the O.G., is truly senior to Jackson’s Priest by about two to three decades compared to the 1972 version. Music, then produced by Curtis Mayfield, was a huge factor then and is now. For the reboot, Atlanta, not Harlem, is where it’s at, with hip-hop replacing soul and rapper Future in charge musically.
“There’s a lot of musical history in Atlanta and music is a huge part of SuperFly so it makes sense that they would bring it to Atlanta for the new generation,” Williams shared. “You can say what you want but this is where hip-hop is right now. Hip-hop is in the south and primarily Atlanta. And music was a character, if you will, in the original “SuperFly” . . . I think it’s smart for this generation.”
On set this day, it’s just Williams and Jackson as Scatter and Priest have a mini-showdown in the gym. Priest can’t easily best Scatter so it’s clear that they have something to learn from each other.
“It’s a changing of the guard,” Williams explained between takes. “Priest has some ideas, some new ways and new directions in which to take the business and Scatter is like ‘look, we’re doing fine. Let’s stay under the radar and keep the police off our back. If we start getting too flashy, too poppy, that’s too much attention.’ So it’s the old way versus the new way. I think that’s their main tension.”
When it comes to Williams and his career, however, there is no tension. The old way continues to serve him just fine.
Superfly hits theaters June 15.