Ollie reflects on the humanity and unique light of the iconic actor, especially apparent in VICE’s Black Market.
A small boat serenely floats off the coast of Hout Bay, South Africa. The high arching hills of the coastline provide perfect cover for what is about to happen. Beneath the surface of the water the locals illegally obtain abalone, a delicate gastropod mollusc. Michael K Williams stands on the deck, helping pour out water from the hull as the divers ascend to the surface. These are the scene’s from Black Market, a VICE documentary series in which Williams interviews various members of illicit industries spanning the globe. The show is a classic Vice affair, providing uncompromising access into current affairs with a run-and-gun style of filmmaking that sits on the peripheries of the tantalising and the informative. What makes Black Market unique, however, is the choice of Williams as a presenter. The actor brings a certain tenor in his presentational ability and interviewing style that allows for the show to transition into a unique mode of documentary filmmaking.
There is a certain warmth that Williams radiates that is instantly captivating. Not only does his presence make for an incredibly engaging watch but also affords him instantaneous trust from his subjects. When first meeting the aforementioned abalone poachers in South Africa one of them remarks “I thought you would be younger” to which Williams gives a considered pause then retorts “you see; it’s make-up”, this is met by rapturous laughter from the poachers. He seems unfazed walking into a room of balaclava adorned faces when interviewing two New Jersey car jackers, asking “If push came to shove and y'all had to pull that trigger to get the people out the car, would you do it?” to which the carjackers plainly respond “Nah, personally I won’t”. This sort of candid response being a product of Williams inviting aura, allowing these men to let their guard down, not having to keep up certain masculine pretences in front of him. Williams’ charisma and empathy gives him such headway in these exchanges that is simply not afforded to other presenters, building instant rapport with his subjects and getting at a deeper human truth that he seems endlessly on a quest to unearth.
"There is a certain warmth that Williams radiates that is instantly captivating."
In these travels Williams is candid about his own struggles with addiction, implementing his perspective so as to never be looking down on his subjects. An illuminating example of this being the bond he forms with a couple who shoplift to pay for their crack cocaine addiction in central London. We see genuine concern from Williams and a complete understanding of the situation, never trying to intervene or lecture them of their wrong doing. His attitude in the face of addiction is refreshing compared to the sensationalism this subject matter usually receives. Black Market gives insight into why Williams possessed such extraordinary abilities as a performer, constantly searching for human depth, unconcerned with judgement and the narrow bracketing of typecasting that he too was a victim of. Williams is uninterested in looking for easy answers, instead being focused on understanding the systemic suffering these various criminals are the products of, or as Williams simply puts it, “I want to give people a window into why people do the things that they do”.
On 6 September, it was announced that Williams had died aged 54. He possessed a truly singular voice, an incredibly gifted performer who managed to stretch and toy with perspective far beyond the material he was afforded. When an artist's skills are so magnificent yet unassuming, their whole body of work seems to unfold in front of your eyes. One of the rare benefits of social media being this outpouring of love and endless parade of clips celebrating a truly remarkable character actor. One such clip was a short from 2017 entitled Typecasting in which Williams plays four versions of himself discussing whether or not he’s being typecast as a gangster. Not only does the video showcase the range and brilliant comic timing Williams was capable of but also lends to the frank thesis of Black Market. In both, Williams is fixated on how we perceive ourselves depending on circumstances, a perception that is inescapable without empathy. VICE released an official statement revealing that Williams was halfway through filming a second season of Black Market prior to his death.
Black Market is available to stream on ALL 4 now.
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