Weekend Reads: Michael K. Williams Edition

Earlier this week, Michael K. Williams, the actor who so memorably portrayed Omar Little on The Wire, admitted in an interview with the New Jersey Star-Ledger that he had been leading a double life. While playing the Robin Hood of the modern underclass – a shotgun-wielding robber of drug dealers with a penchant for Honey Nut Cheerios – he was privately partaking in those very same drugs. Williams explains that he became addicted to cocaine in 2004 – two years into The Wire’s run – and went on days-long drug benders, stalking around Newark (New Jersey’s closest Baltimore equivalent) looking to get high. Eventually, like so many drug addicts before him, he went on to find God, as the Reverend Ronald Christian of Irvington, New Jersey’s Christian Love Church helped him kick his self-destructive habit.

This story is, on the face of it, not really unique. Williams was well aware of the problem his drug use posed, explaining how “it was just a matter of time before I got caught and my business ended up on the cover of a tabloid or I went to jail or, worse, I ended up dead.” There was nothing really transgressive in his attitudes toward drug use. What one does find interesting, however, is the fact that Williams had lived out his drug-using life as Omar. The character he played so memorably on television became a sort of shadow self. “No one who was in my circle, who knew me as Mike, was allowing me to get high. I had to slip away to do drugs,” he said, explaining why he went by the pseudonym during his binges.

What does it mean that “Michael K. Williams” lived out a secret life as “Omar, Drug User”? Certainly Williams, a graduate of the National Black Theatre, an accomplished dancer, and oft-employed actor does not share any clear similarities to the character he played on television. Nonetheless, there was something in his character that appealed to Williams’ id. To try to extricate what Williams may have seen in Omar would be the worst sort of armchair psychology, of course, but is it fair to use Williams’ experiences to ask a few questions about the intersection of crime, sexuality, and drug use?

Frank Ocean might feel Omar’s pain.

Before we go any further, it is crucial to mention that one of the more compelling aspects of Omar Little’s character was his homosexuality. Existing within the traditionally homophobic culture of the young black urban underclass, Omar was what we might call a Gay Scofflaw, an anti-hero living on the fringes of society whose sexual identity is not a function of self-hatred or deviant perversion, as homosexuality has so long been portrayed in American culture, but simply as one of many personal characteristics. Put another way, Omar Little is more Chris Keller than Tom Ripley. He’s a smooth operator with a consistent moral compass and a sexual identity that just is.

Interestingly, while there haven’t been many famous Gay Scofflaws in American popular culture, Omar Little is likely not the most prominent example of this rare archetype. Rather, that would be… 

The Joker

The earliest incarnation of The Joker, Batman’s hideous arch-nemesis, is surely popular culture’s most prominent – and ambiguously realized – Gay Scofflaw. A sadistic super villain with a sordid, shrouded past, The Joker has gone through a series of re-imaginations, though his most popular depictions saw him as a crypto-homosexual. Though famously portrayed as a straight, married failed stand-up comic in the classic graphic novel The Killing Joke, The Joker has spent most of his career portrayed as a sexual deviant. Up until the 1980s, DC Comics’ in house writers and editors understood that The Joker was a homosexual, though this could never be spelled out explicitly in the comics. As late as 1973, even Neal Adams, the famously socially progressive author of Green Lantern/Green Arrow and one of DC’s most prominent writers, was pushing to more greatly emphasize The Joker’s homosexual identity.

Neal Adams’s Green Arrow was a liberal icon. Neal Adams himself? Well…

It seems strange to think that Adams, who was famous for re-imagining the Green Arrow as a crypto-anarchist with a smack-addicted sidekick, would want to stress The Joker’s homosexuality in a post-Stonewall America that was only then starting to grapple with the tyranny of heteronormativity. Nonetheless, this remained DC’s conception of the character until the introduction of Harley Quinn, The Joker’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, in 1992. While Quinn’s introduction to the canon suggested that The Joker was no longer “gay,” homosexuality remains a disturbingly persistent part of the character’s DNA. This makes some sense, given the oft-cited homoerotic characteristics of the Batman canon that led Frank Miller, the author of The Dark Knight, to describe Batman and The Joker’s relationship as a “homophobic nightmare.”

What, you might ask, does all this have to do with drugs? Well, we see in the embodiments of The Joker much of what we see in Williams’ Omar Little. The Joker seems to represent something to those who play him, as his imitators seem, like Mike Williams, to almost inevitably have complicated relationships with drugs. In 1989, Jack Nicholson, a man famous for his appetites for cocaine, played The Joker to some acclaim. While Nicholson was not (as far as we know) on drugs at the time, he played the character like a coked-out version of himself. This was, perhaps, the first example of Nicholson’s continuing willingness to conflate himself, his characters, and his powderlust.

Heath Ledger and The Joker: Self vs. Self?

A generation later, Heath Ledger took up the mantle of playing Batman’s greatest adversary. In 2008’s The Dark Knight, he turned in a magnificent performance, portraying the character in so deeply unhinged a manner that he made Nicholson’s turn seem downright somnolent. Ledger would never receive his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, of course, as he died on January 22, 2008 at the age of 28. Little did the public know that Ledger had been battling insomnia-related depression, leading him to regularly imbibe a cocktail of prescription medications that led to his death by “acute intoxication” from a mixture of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam, and doxylamine. In his last days, he existed in a dream state, badgered by his own thoughts. It would not be even remotely surprising if a very ill Ledger felt some sort of empathy for The Joker.

Ledger’s terrifying performance captured the public imagination so deeply that it immediately became popular parody fodder and even made its way into Presidential politics. The public mood regarding The Joker took on a far more solemn character on July 20, 2012, however, when the Cardinal-headed James Eagan Holmes opened fire on a showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. Loudly proclaiming himself “The Joker,” Holmes set off several gas canisters and opened fire on the audience, killing 12 and wounding 58. Later, news emerged that, not only was Holmes likely mentally disturbed, but he was also on prescription medication. This is absolutely not to say that The Joker led Holmes to do what he did, or that people using Vicodin are predisposed to violence. Rather, it means…well, maybe nothing.

James Holmes: The Joker, Drugs, and Tragedy

In most editions of Weekend Reads, we are able to reach some firm conclusion about what a recent news story means to the culture of drugs and alcohol use and abuse. We might make the case, for instance, that Rihanna’s behavior is counterproductive to the anti-Drug War movement or that the poor treatment of Ryan Leaf is emblematic of serious drug-related hypocrisies in American culture. It is unclear, however, what the experiences of Michael K. Williams, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, James Holmes, Omar Little, and The Joker tell us about drugs, violence, and the archetype of the Gay Scofflaw.

Maybe we are to take nothing greater from these stories other than the understanding that actors sometimes “live” their characters. Maybe we should simply shrug and mutter something to the affect of “Gee, the archetype of the Gay Scofflaw sure is complicated.” Maybe there’s simply no connection between the fact that those who portray Omar Little and The Joker seem to experience similar internal struggles over drug use, similar bouts of mania and depression, similar wars between the id and the super-ego. Maybe Barthes was right and the importance of the Gay Scofflaw exists simply on the page in front of you with no attention to be paid to those interpreting, and ultimately living out, those characters. Maybe.