Williams at Vanderveer Estates, where he grew up.
Photo: Demetrius Freeman / The New York Times / Redux
The housing project known as Vanderveer Estates consists of 59 red brick buildings bounded by Nostrand and Foster avenues in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. One night a few months ago, actor Michael K. Williams stood in front of one of these buildings and gave a speech. “I like my hood,” he said, hoarse with emotion. “I was born and raised on these streets. He was wearing a white hoodie and white sweatpants, with a white face mask pulled down under his chin, and in the bright yard lights he seemed to be shining. Scanning faces in the crowd, he said he returned home to Vanderveer (or Flatbush Gardens, as it is now officially called) to deliver a message to the neighborhood youth. “We can be together,” he insisted. “We can love each other. It’s possible.”
Williams has given numerous speeches in recent years, often on the streets of Brooklyn’s black neighborhoods. As one of the founders of a non-profit organization called We build the block, he chaired a series of unconventional gatherings across the borough – neighborhood parties where teenage organizers registered their neighbors to vote. He also supported a city council candidate, spent hours engaging youth groups in private conversations, and traveled across the country to show a film he made about teenage incarceration to anyone who wanted to. see it – judges, cops, jailed teens themselves. When speaking, he adopted a sort of fighting posture, square shoulders and flared nostrils, conveying the same combination of ferocity and tenderness that had defined his portrayal of Omar Little, one of the most indelible roles in television. Back in Vanderveer, some of his old friends called him “the prophet of projects,” and it wasn’t hard to see why. With the white beard he sometimes wore, his intense gaze and fierce appeals for justice and love, he might make you think of the holy men of the Bible.
Williams was found dead of a suspected drug overdose on Monday at his Williamsburg apartment. He was 54 years old. This week, as the world mourned the loss of a great actor, the people of Flatbush grappled with the loss of something bigger. His friends and family remembered him as a rare person, someone from a very hard place with a very gentle heart. “Mike believed in being loved and feeling love,” said his nephew Dominic Dupont. “He showed it through the way he treated people. “
Williams lived in Vanderveer until he shot the second season of Thread. His building overlooked a courtyard known as the Terrace. “We were called Terrace Massive,” recalls Alvin Washington, a childhood friend. “There were about fifteen of us. A small crew. Of these fifteen friends, nearly half have died. According to Washington, only Williams and possibly one other boy avoided spending time. “Mike will tell you in three seconds, he’s not a gangster,” he laughed. “He was a free soul. If he wanted to dance, he would dance. If he wanted to cry, he would cry.
Washington was serving an eight-year sentence for robbery when Thread came out of. He and the other men from his cell block were rushing into the day room to watch him. “We don’t speak when it was on,” he said. Upon his release from prison, Williams gave him a box set from the series and a collection of designer clothes that people had sent him. He took it to parties and introduced it to celebrities. “I know crazy people who come from where he came from and don’t come looking for anyone,” Washington said. “They push you away, because you might still be a criminal or something, but Mike looked past that and saw the person.” Recently, Williams started a production company, Freedome, with the goal of producing work by local black artists. He planned to give people in the community minor roles. “Anyone could eat it,” Washington said, “because that’s how he designed it.”
Dupont, Williams’ nephew, was one of the founders of the company. “We will continue to move forward in a direction consistent with Michael’s worldview,” he told me. He was talking on the phone from Williams’ apartment in Williamsburg, where, two days earlier, he had found his uncle’s body. He said that the love Williams had shown him throughout his life had, in a weird way, got him through this moment. “He helped me prepare to face difficult situations,” he said.
These situations included a 25-year prison sentence. When Dupont was 19, he was convicted of murdering a man who attacked his brother. “My relationship with Mike before jail was close, and those 40-foot walls didn’t change that,” he said. Some 20 years after the start of his sentence, in 2017, Governor Andrew Cuomo granted him clemency, a decision that prison authorities have attributed to Dupont’s exceptional work as a youth counselor. Dupont, in turn, credited Williams with helping him become a leader. “Mike fostered these things in me,” he said.
Shortly before Dupont came out, he and Williams did High in the system, a documentary for VICE on HBO about the mass incarceration of teenagers in the United States. In interviews, Williams said it was a transformative experience, the start of a quest to understand and address the root causes of suffering in his community. It is thanks to this work that he knew Edwin Raymond, police lieutenant and activist from East Flatbush. In 2015, Raymond and 11 other black and brown officers sued the city, alleging that the NYPD pressured them to engage in discriminatory practices. Last year, Williams brought Raymond to the Oscars. On the red carpet, he refused to speak to any reporter who did not interview Raymond first. “He was someone who never forgot the hood,” Raymond said. “He used his influence as much as possible to elevate people beyond himself.”
One of those people was Alvin Washington’s son, AJ. Over the past year, AJ, who is 15, has recorded dozens of episodes of a video podcast at his family’s apartment in Vanderveer. Called Old2New, he presents his conversations with older members of the community – “people who lived on the streets and in jail, stuff like that,” he told me.
In February, Williams appeared on the show. For half an hour, he answered AJ’s questions with remarkable thoughtfulness and vulnerability. At one point, he observed that people deal with pain and anger in different ways. “For me, I turn my pain inward and hurt myself,” he said. Others hurt those around them. “So it’s about, we have to love each other no matter what,” he said. “We have to lift each other up.”
“We should be helping each other instead of fighting,” AJ said, okay. “You must not kill yourself.”
“You said some precious words right there, man,” Williams replied. He looked away, collecting his thoughts. “As I get older,” he said, “I begin to realize that our inability to communicate with each other as black men and women – it was on purpose. When they brought us here as slaves, They took away our language, our culture, our spirituality, our religion. They took all that away from us. He added, “I had my throat slit so I could eat.”
As the conversation ended, AJ told Williams he admired her. “I just wanna be like you,” he said with a shy smile. Williams raised his eyebrows and waved a finger. “Oh no, no, no,” he said. “Do me a favor, nephew. Don’t be like me. To be better than me. Stand on those shoulders and take it higher. He assured AJ that he was already on his way. “Be awesome,” he said. ” Taller than me. Please. You hear me?”