In 2013, Fran Bartkowski, professor in English at the School of Arts & Sciences-Newark, co-taught a course about the now canonical HBO show The Wire with Sherri-Ann Butterfield, Professor of Sociology, and Executive Vice Chancellor. It was a course she would go on to teach several more times, most recently in 2020 with a focus on the Black Lives Matter movements.
In a 2014 series of events inspired by that show and focused on Newark, Bartkowski and Professor Roland Anglin, then the director of the Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies, interviewed Michael K. Williams, who played the character of Omar Little, performing a nuanced portrayal of a powerful and highly feared drug lord who was also homosexual.
In the interview, Williams talks about how the character helped him come to terms with himself and how he brought his personal demons into his portrayal.
Bartkowski shares her thoughts on that interview and her experience with Michael K. Williams below.
When the texts began to come in quick succession on September 6, 2021, about the death of Michael K. Williams, I was, along with countless others, gutted, flattened, shocked, and sad beyond words, as David Simon, among others said in the suddenness of this news.
The death of this man, an amazing and so talented a human, hit my heart especially hard because I had had the privilege and honor of an hour and half interview with him in the Special Collections Room of Dana Library with our former colleague, Roland Anglin, then Director of the Cornwall Center. Michael K. Williams came to RU-N as did a number of actors from the HBO series The Wire, after Professor and Executive Vice Chancellor, Sherri-Ann Butterfield and I had just taught (for the first of three times) our course on that now canonical text of long-form television.
Because Michael K. Williams was unable to pay an in-person visit to the entire class of nearly 100 students, due to filming Boardwalk Empire at that time, he agreed to a facetime phone call from the woods and on the set in New Jersey during our class meeting time. His generosity and warmth and openness as a guest with our students, and with the small group of faculty at dinner after the interview, was stunning. His honesty about his demons, his projects for engagement in the Newark community, and his pride in his artistic success as a character, Omar, whose name has become legend, and who Williams embodied with his passionate and compassionate performance of Black masculinity that cracked open hearts, minds and the devotion of viewers.
He will continue to inspire. He will be missed and he will live on our screens whenever we need a dose of his dreams, fulfilled only thus far at the tragic age of 54.