When asked about her sexuality on Desert Island Discs, BBC Presenter Sue Perkins said that “being gay is maybe the 47th most interesting thing about me” and that she hoped one day “the process of ‘coming out’ would not be a big deal or a great fanfare.” I thought about this quote when I learnt yesterday that Michael K. Williams, who played Omar Little in The Wire, had tragically passed away at the age of 54. Why? Because being gay was almost the 47th most interesting thing about Omar Little too.
Omar Little is an enduring character for many reasons. He’s a walking mass of contradictions: he is a trench coat-wearing anti-hero, a stick-up man with a sawed-off shotgun who is as comfortable helping a single mother feed her baby as he is shooting a man in his ‘hind parts.’ With his terrifying facial scar and strict moral code, he’s both a superhero and a villain: a man who goes out for a box of Honey Nut Cheerios in his silk pyjamas and comes home with the entire drug supply of a stash house. Some people have compared him to an archetypal Robin Hood figure, but he is an anomaly in almost every aspect: an openly gay, hyper-masculine African American who seems completely comfortable with his sexuality.
Yet what makes Omar really so unique is that his sexuality is not his predominant personality trait. With so many other characters past and present — Eric from Sex Education, Mitch and Cam from Modern Family, Will and Jack from Will and Grace, Sophia from Orange Is The New Black, arguably even Vito Spatafore from The Sopranos — being queer comes first and everything else comes after. This is not the case with Omar; he’s a man who just happens to be gay.
In a genre that relies so heavily on certain tropes — corrupt politicians, compromised police officers, sociopathic gangsters and heavy-drinking womanisers — it would have been so easy for The Wire to have put Omar’s sexuality front and centre and use it as a vehicle for a social agenda.
Omar (unlike Kima) never explicitly talks about the discrimination he faces and is therefore never victimised; his homosexuality is presented as a simple fact rather than something all-consuming or automatically deserving of sympathy. Omar’s sexuality was still a deliberate creative choice from the writers — his character is based on real-life stick-up artist Donnie Andrews, who had a wife — but it was Michael K. Williams who ensured Omar’s longevity in our cultural consciousness. The show’s writers had originally intended for Omar to die seven episodes in, but his performance was too menacing and charismatic to be pigeon-holed or curtailed, and it was the nuance in every scowl and smile that stopped his homosexuality being played for either laughs or shock value.
Michael K. Williams should be remembered for more than one performance, but in a society that obsesses over identity politics — whether straight actors should play gay roles, and so forth — Omar is a refreshing reminder of a character who is bold, brave and pioneering because of who he is rather than what he is or what is he doing politically. And, just as Omar says to McNulty, “sometimes who you are is enough.”