#RIP: When Death Becomes Us

Sadly, it’s the best career move for Black stars that shine brightest when the light goes out.

Jeremy Helligar

--

Michael K. Williams on The Wire (Photo: HBO) and Kristoff St. John on The Young and the Restless (Photo: CBS)

Last week we lost the greatest Black actor I’d never heard of. When someone in a meeting at work announced that Michael K. Williams had died, my first response wasn’t “What?” It was “Who?” (It also took me a beat to realize she hadn’t said Keegan-Michael Ray.)

I’m ashamed to admit it, but this titan of a Black thespian, who died on September 6 at age 54, was apparently a legend to so many of my colleagues, all of them White, and I didn’t even know his name. Once I looked him up, I immediately recognized his unforgettable face from 12 Years a Slave (maybe most of my colleagues had to Google him, too — since it was a virtual meeting, I wouldn’t have been able to see them frantically searching), but why didn’t I know his name?

I can blame it, in part, on my taste in TV. Although Williams had dozens of movie and television credits over more than two decades in Hollywood, most of the obits singled out his long-running roles in two TV series as helping to earn him a sterling reputation as an actor’s actor — The Wire and Boardwalk Empire — and I’ve never watched either of them. I haven’t gotten around to HBO’s cancelled-after-one-season Lovecraft Country, his final television credit for which he’s currently Emmy-nominated, either. Williams apparently excelled and specialized in gritty urban crime-dramas, and I tend to prefer my television more on the escapist side. (I veer further into the realm of dark, hyper-realism in cinema, though rarely gritty urban crime-dramas.)

I also blame the lack of love Williams received while he was alive. Much of the mainstream media seem to cover every move of White D-listers who have done very little of note — much less rack up five Primetime Emmy nominations in six years, as Williams did — while Black talents that haven’t reached superstar level rarely get significant attention unless they’ve allegedly committed a crime, stirred up controversy, dated a Kardashian or died.

Think about it: Black Lives Matter was inspired not by the living but by the dearly and violently departed. Many of the most celebrated Black people over the past decade — from civilians like Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor

--

--

Jeremy Helligar

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj