When Omar Little walked into a room, it was like a force of nature had entered. He commanded the space. Omar wasn’t your average thug. He was the Robin Hood of gritty Baltimore, robbing drug dealers and sharing the wealth with his community. The biggest surprise? Omar was also gay.
Played by actor Michael K. Williams in HBO’s hit crime drama The Wire, Omar was a hard but honest, dark-skinned dude, with steely eyes and a giant scar running down his face. No Hollywood special effect, that scar was courtesy of Williams’s own troubled past. Even surrounded by a stellar cast, Williams stood out, imbuing the violent criminal with a gentle humanity that made him unlike any character we’d seen on TV. In just five seasons, Williams created one of the most enduring anti-heroes of all time, a character so authentic that he earned praise from none other than the former President of the United States, Barack Obama.
Omar felt real to Williams too, real enough to give the actor an identity crisis and a drug addiction when the curtain went down on The Wire. That may have made it easier for Williams to play his most recent role, as real life HIV-positive veteran and activist Ken Jones in When We Rise. Jones too struggled with questions of identity and addiction.
Williams credits Reverend Ron Christian of the Irvington, New Jersey, Christian Love Baptist Church with helping him kick his cocaine habit.
“Every body called him Reverend Ron,” recalls Williams. “Yeah, Reverend Ron Christian helped me kick a lot of habits.”
Christian, who died in 2015, ran a welcoming church, open to everyone — blacks, whites, straights, gays, bisexuals, trans people, sex workers, addicts, the homeless, and people living with HIV were all included.
“That type of community acceptance and love — at it’s core, that’s when the healing really begins to happen,” Williams says. “If I want to help to heal my community, I don’t want to alienate the people who are ill in my community. It doesn’t work. I have to embrace everything, everyone, that is broken in my community. Because the people who are the most in pain are the ones who are closest to the solution. That’s where the problem is — the people who are most in pain. So you have to go there, right? So, Rev. Ron was that kind of guy. There was never any judgment. He liked the broken people. If you had issues this was the place for you because this is what he felt he was called to do. So, it was that type of acceptance and non-judgement, that kind of attracted me to the congregation.”
That experience may have paved the way for some of the moving scenes in When We Rise. Williams — as Ken Jones — struggles to find his own spiritual home, moving between churches, fighting for LGBT inclusion, and renewing a relationship with God he once thought lost during the early years of the AIDS crisis.
Above: When We Rise
“I look at his life and as someone who is like a real American hero,” says Willilams. “And it’s real honest for me to tell you that. This is a man who has been on the front lines for our country in the military. He’s a dark-skinned Black man that was in the Navy at a time when it was probably not that easy to get in the Navy. He hid his homosexuality while doing all of that, and then to have all that taken from him. Then to say to himself, ‘OK, I’m gonna turn over a new leaf and move to San Francisco and start a new life for myself.’ Only to be hit by the tidal wave and the front lines of HIV/AIDS, and having to fight that front line battle with the whole meds and everything, having to get proper healthcare. First of all, you have to identify what the damn thing was. You know, that’s four wars. That’s four battles that he’s fought face to face: civil rights, gay rights, HIV, the good old American military. It’s like — and to see him now — to have all that history behind his eyes, and to be in that presence it’s really humbling.”
Jones indeed has a calming, hopeful spirit about him. It may be why years later, he began officiating weddings for same-sex couples. It is an extension of his activist years of caring for LGBT youth and investing in kids to get them off the streets. Like the actor who portays him, Jones hasn’t always been the man he is today.
“I spent a good deal of time preparing myself to die with dignity and grace,” Jones recalls of the 1980s. “I had bought a lovely house in San Francisco right across the street from the ocean so I could hear the water. And, I’m laying there with my hands crossed and I’m waiting to die. They had initially told me I had about 30 days.”
Jones was one of many gay and bi men (as well as transgender and cisgender women of color) who were told they had mere days or weeks to live thanks to the AIDS complications ravaging their bodies. And yet, year after year, they outlasted all of their friends and lovers — and then struggled to start over and begin to actually “live” again.
“So, for about five years I sat there waiting to die,” Jones recalls. “And then slowly this thought kind of dawned on me. You know, maybe I’m not going to die. So, then I had to go through this whole kind of re-shifting of my life. From preparing to die to starting all over again, and having most of my support network and contacts dead. It was kind of starting over again with absolutely nothing.”
Like many men in his situation, Jones had nursed a partner as he passed away, then was evicted from their home by homophobic and distant relatives. It wasn’t an uncommon story in the 1980s and ‘90s, as many same-sex couples didn’t have wills or legally shared property.
Jones was out of a house, out of a job, all his belongs gong away in the back of someone else’s moving truck. Alone and sick and fighting the Veterans Affairs for better HIV medication, Jones says his situation went from bad to worse.
“In the middle of my preparing to die was the Rodney King verdict, which was significant in my life. That is when I actually broke down, and I guess you would say I started experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder from Vietnam 25 years later. I didn’t feel comfortable leaving my house. I couldn’t cross the street. If I heard a car coming I would duck and hide underneath another car. I felt totally insane, and it was as though my contract with America had expired.”
The VA finally came through and specialists helped him cope with the trauma he was experiencing. “The VA helped me through a very critical period of my life,” Jones says, “as did religion and spirituality. The day that I was told I was going to die soon, about an hour after the doctors left the office, two friends of mine came by. And they said, ‘God told us to come here and tell you that you’re not gonna die, he’s gonna save your life, and when you get out of here you have to go to church with us.’ So, you know, I’m there, I’m told I’m dying, and I was also going through detox. So, my head is swirling and here are these two people talking about God, and I said, ‘Holy shit. I really lost my mind here. This is the end.’”
But when Jones got out of the hospital, he did start attending church with the folks who saved him. He says, “after a couple of years I started feeling better and better. And every day I felt a little bit better than the day before. And now, after 30 years of each day being a little bit better than the day before, I’m doing great.”
Above: Hap and Leonard
The former sailor says his doctors now celebrate his vitals each visit. “They don’t know that when God heals you, he doesn’t target one part of you. He heals you and makes you new — and you start all over again,” Jones says. Faith and antiretrovirals are a potent cocktail.
Still he knows, for many people with HIV — especially the gay ones — “it is the church that is unsafe. But it’s the spirituality and the direct connection to God, without going through a religion or having to do anything — a private relationship you have with God [that heals]. You know how usually we put pictures of people we really love on our refrigerator door? I believe that God has my picture on his refrigerator door. He loves me that much. This is such a crucial discussion right now because some people think that God hates gay people. And so I want to have a very honest conversation, because that’s not true. I know he loves me. He loves me so much that he gave his only begotten son for me.”
Williams too thinks he lucked out with faith, and with Reverend Ron. “Who’d of thought he would [offer] a friendship and a brotherhood that would go far outside the church walls?”
Back in Hollywood, Williams has played memorable roles from Boardwalk Empire’s Albert “Chalky” White to Leonard Pine — another gay, Black Vietnam vet — on Sundance’s Hap and Leonard. Once, years ago, when asked if he had any concerns about playing a gay character, the actor said no, he didn’t, but, “man, I got a problem with not eating.”
This role, as Ken Jones in When We Rise, the seminal journey of several LGBT rights activists who came together and survived decades of setback and successes, was a very different thing for Williams.
“My reasoning for wanting to take this particular role is way more personal than me being afraid of not eating,” Williams insists. “I would have done this for free. It was an honor to tell these stories.”
Above: With Michael Kevin Darnall on The Wire
The Brooklyn, New York, raised actor has been surrounded by LGBT folks since he made his professional debut as a dancer at 22, and his support for and inspiration from early LGBT activists like Ken Jones is ongoing. The HIV epidemic too has impacted him profoundly.
“My nephews, Michale Frederick Williams and Eric Williams, both are deceased. This is my blood. They were two gay men that I loved to death. My best friend who taught me the streets in Brooklyn was a lesbian, Robin Henry. She’s still alive. I danced in the house music world, danced background for Crystal Waters. So, this particular role, it was never about the money for me. I would have done it for free. And with honor. Great honor. I was humbled and grateful to be able to tell a story of an American hero like Ken Jones.”
Williams reveals little of his own personal life.
“I mean, my personal life is boring,” he says. “Your personal life ain’t nobody’s business. Ain’t nobody checking out for that. I mean I ain’t. I’m on the road. There’s a lot going on in my life that’s positive, and right now if any relationship thing [were] to happen, it would happen if I find the right person. But right now I’m just chillin’. I let love find me.”
Today, Williams is hard at work on a criminal justice reform documentary, his series Hap and Leonard is gaining a cult following, and When We Rise, which aired in March, is streaming at ABC.Go.com and will soon be on DVD and Blu-ray. (Cleve Jones’s book— When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, a partial inspiration for the series — is now available, too). In an industry where African-Americans are just beginning to get mainstream recognition (and are still subjected to colorism in casting), Williams has carved out a niche that few character actors have been able to achieve.
Jones too, cut his own path as a black man in a gay culture that struggles with racism even today. When he first hit San Francsico, traditional gay establishments were sometimes hostile to people of color, even as AIDS began to ravage both the black and gay communities.
Above: With with Phylicia Rashad in When We Rise
“It was very very complicated,” Jones recalls. “It had a bunch of layers. I think the one that is most important in the beginning of this epidemic, it seemed as if the gay white men and the establishment wanted to establish their own sandbox. And there were women and there were people of color who were saying, ‘We’re experiencing this just like you are. And we all have skills and stuff to bring to the table to talk about this epidemic.’ And so we had to literally fight in order to participate.”
Today, as black and latinx queer and trans folks lead the way in some activist circles like Black Lives Matters, Jones’s advice is prescient.
“In the early days, we kind of made a mistake,” he says, of the 1980s. “You know, we didn’t have a workbook or a guide that we could just check off things. And one of our misunderstandings in the beginning was, if there were eight to 10 people at the decision-making table, our thinking was since they’re all gay white men, two or three are gonna have to give up their seat for diversity.”
He says he sees the flaws in that thinking now, and what he learned seems particularly timely with activists of all colors fighting back against white supremacy and political oppression.
“Now, these white gay men they haven’t done anything wrong, they haven’t failed, they’re at the top of their game, they’re doing well, and they’re being asked to give up their seats. How crazy is that? So some people left with a whole bunch of anger and resentment towards the people coming in taking those seats. Along the way, we realized it’s a lot more healthy if we add more seats to the table, as opposed to asking people to get up and surrender their seat for the sake of diversity. So, we’ve gotten better at it. But the racism is alive, I feel it every single time I’m in the Castro. People come from all over the world to San Francisco, and they bring their attitudes and beliefs with them. I think we also tend to just associate with people who are like us. Sometimes it’s not intentional, but it looks horrible.”
Both men agree that black lives are “in trouble now,” as Jones says. “One of the things I was hoping as a result of this series, and having people all over America look at this question of race, I was hoping that maybe for a month or so as families gather at the dinner table to say their grace over their meal, that they could say a grace for black lives. I think black lives are in trouble right now and I say that because I meet so many young people who are living their lives with the absence of hope. Can you imagine? Not having hope? That the shitty f’d up life you have today is the one you’re going to have tomorrow? And the day after, and the day after? It does not make for great humanity.”
Above: Michael K. Williams on Boardwalk Empire
Williams adds that “mental health in the Black community—in particular my community, the hood — is an issue that number one, we need to start talking about more. We need as a community to not make it a joke anymore you know, to not say, ‘Oh, that dude crazy.’ Mental health is real in our community, especially now in the time that we live in, where our kids, particularly are so stressed out and there’s so much trauma. So much post-traumatic stress that our kids in our community deal with now. Second thing, and I don’t know how to do this, but there needs to be… more facilities and not just in the emergency room for when we send our people in our communities in with these issues. You look at my good friend Earl Nash he just lost his life [because of his] 20-year bout with bipolar and schizophrenia. He’s the reason I started acting. He was not a thug, he was not a career criminal. This dude had a prominent career as an entertainer, as an athlete and an actor. Mental illness at 22 years old took him down the rabbit hole. He was never fully able to pull himself out and 20 years later, he’s dead now. He went from the hospital to the jail, the jail to the hospital. And at the core of his crime and whatever he was getting arrested for, mental illness was at the core of that. It would be nice to see more facilities other than just the hospitals and the fucking prisons to send people from the community who have issues. More counseling-based programs. Things where people can go to get help because there’s so much stress and so much trauma in the community.”
Jones and Williams may be exceptions, men who have battled addiction, racism, and depression, but who have made it to middle-age with relative resiliency. Jones admits, though, that “African-American men have it especially hard, because it’s an hourly occurrence [to confront racism]. If you step into an elevator, you see a woman change her purse to another arm — you know that dwells on you, you feel unwelcome. If you cross the street and you hear that ‘tick tick’ sound of doors locking just because you’re crossing the street, it beats you up. And I can tell you, I’ve been called the [N-word] on every street in the Castro. But I’ve also been called a faggot on every street in the Castro.” He laughs at the ridiculousness of it all.
The timing of When We Rise, on the precipice of a new period of HIV activism and intersectional resistance in the face of the Trump regime, seems judicious.
“It’s a good time to tell a story about what people can do when we band together and fight for what we believe in,” Williams says. “Because that’s what they were doing back then. They wouldn’t give up. That’s how we got HIV medicine.”
He’s also got a new “big brother,” he says, in Ken Jones. “Because of this journey he took with me and allowed me to take with him. I’m really blessed to have had that experience. He’s a very kind and beautiful human being.”
The actor doesn’t think about how many people are watching his portrayls of these powerful black men, the gay black men that is: Ken or Hap or Omar.
“As an artist once I do it, I don’t worry about who it touches,” Williams says. “One thing I am concerned about is the one kid that may see this story and maybe not know about their history, and feels some sort of relief or pride in their sexuality or whatever their difference they may be having in their community.”