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Tommy Carcetti

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Member since: Tue Jul 10, 2007, 02:49 PM
Number of posts: 40,508

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The groundbreaking nature of Michael K. Williams' character of Omar Little from The Wire.

Needless to say, one look at my screen name and you will know I am a huge fan of the HBO drama series, The Wire.

In fact, along with the 2019 Chernobyl miniseries (another HBO product), I consider it the finest piece of television art I have ever seen, even surpassing the also-exemplary Breaking Bad and The Sopranos drama series.

What made The Wire so unparalleled amongst its peers was that it managed to both create hyper-realistic dialogue brought to life by the actors and screenwriters without an ounce of overwrought melodrama, and still have an air of timeless epic nature about it that evoked literary classic giants such as Shakespeare, Dickens and Balzac.

Front and center to The Wire epic nature was its creation of larger-than-life characters of an almost mythical nature, yet thrust into a very realistic and natural setting. Brother Mazoune. Stringer Bell. Senator Clay Davis. The Barksdales. The Greek.

But ask any fan of The Wire which character left the most indelible mark of them all, you'd be hard pressed to find any better answer than Michael K. Williams' unforgettable portrayal of Omar Little.

Williams played Omar as if transposed straight from a Spaghetti Western onto to the streets of inner city Baltimore. Wearing a long black trench coat and waving a shotgun, his presence in the neighborhood would be announced with frantic cries of "Omar's comin'!," and you would automatically know that whatever was about to unfold, it was not going to be good. And in the end, when all was said and done, you'd often hear Omar whistling "A Hunting We Will Go."

In short, he was quite possibly the greatest bad ass of television bad asses that there was.

However, what was also so epic about Omar was that despite his undeniable bad-assery, his character also epitomized the "bad guy with a code"--a type of anti-hero who despite being a party to some rather horrific actions, still lived within his own set of self-regulating morals. He was an armed robber who shot and killed people for cash, but only targeted the ill-gotten gains of drug dealers, not innocent civilians. He viewed his work as "the game," and lived and ultimately died by that game. And in a television show so uninhibited by language or violent content (one five minute scene famously features the two lead police detectives investigating a crime scene uttering only variations of the word "fuck" ), Omar himself never swore. Probably because he didn't need to, and making him use foul language would just be superfluous.

But one other aspect about Omar's character probably had the most impact on me more than anything else.

Omar Little, perhaps the greatest badass in all of television history, was also gay. But it was how his orientation was portrayed on screen that made it such an impact for the times.

I would not say that I was ever homophobic growing up. I can't say I ever thought people who were gay were any less of a human than myself. But, as a straight male growing up in a smaller semi-rural community, I just didn't have much personal interaction with anyone who was openly gay. I knew very few gay people personally. And therefore, my main experience with gay people was how they were portrayed in the media, like television and the movies.

And growing up in the 90s and early 00s, most of the gay male characters in television and the movies fell into one of two categories.

The first category was to play them strictly for laughs in a comedic as catty, feminized queens, typically sharp tongued and sarcastic with an over-obsession about fashion or other superfluous materialistic subjects. It was a very tight box in which to place people in with very limited ability to transcend that role. At their very best, they might be shown as a supporting friend to a straight female lead character, and nothing more.

The second category was less stereotypical, but just as constraining. Basically these type of gay characters were shown sympathetically, but almost over-beholden and overwhelmed by their own sexual orientation. And so their entire on-screen portrayal becomes a sad lament of the difficulties and struggles of a person tragically unable to escape society's biases and prejudices against gay people and everything that is associated with that. Think--for example--Tom Hanks' portrayal in Philadelphia, which as great as it was, didn't really go beyond the lead character's predicament when dealing with his overall identity.

Then Omar Little came along, and he pretty much shattered these pre-existing media characterizations of gay males on screen.

Here was the prototypical bad-ass, hyper-masculine who just happened to be gay. No overdone lisp or desire to break into drag or other trappings of how gay males were portrayed, no inner turmoil about his own orientation--the matter-of-factness of how his sexual orientation was portrayed was both refreshing and groundbreaking in how it guided the greater public's perception of gays and more accepting and open attitude that followed.

And while the shift towards mainstream acceptance of the gay community by the heterosexual community that took place from the late 00s to early 10s culminated by moments like marriage equality certainly couldn't be attributed solely to Omar Little, William's portrayal of that character was nonetheless a watershed moment for straight people like myself who just didn't have much exposure to gay people in general. And strange as it seems, it helped progress people's mindsets for the better in that way.

I was a huge fan of Michael K. Williams' work, not just in The Wire, but in other shows such as Boardwalk Empire as well. He had all the makings of someone who rose to prominence later in his life but could very well have continued to play great roles well into his senior years. He was taken from us far too soon.

However, his performance as Omar Little from The Wire is one that I think speaks far beyond just its importance to television but our overall society as well.

Posted by Tommy Carcetti | Tue Sep 7, 2021, 10:25 AM (17 replies)
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