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Michael K. Williams: 'I'm ready to change the narrative in my community'

Actor Michael K Williams in the VICE documentary on the juvenile justice system.
Actor Michael K Williams in the VICE documentary on the juvenile justice system.

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Actor Michael K. Williams got his breakout role on HBO's "The Wire," portraying the complicated stick-up man Omar Little.

His character was like a Robin Hood of the Baltimore streets, robbing drug dealers and later helping detectives take down the big players who wronged him. In the decade since the show ended, Williams has become an in-demand actor in both TV with “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Night Of,” and in films such as “Inherent Vice” and “12 Years A Slave.”

But long before Williams was an actor, he was a kid growing up in the Vanderveer Projects in Brooklyn, surrounded by the kind of negative influences that threaten to swallow up a young life in a split second.

But Williams avoided the fate of some people around him, he says, thanks to being exposed to the arts at a young age: 

The main thing that changed the course of my life ... was the arts, and it started with my public school education. We had free art in the schools, band class equipped with instruments ... When those types of things start to dry up in our communities, it's gonna affect our young people. That was the main thing I had to gravitate to. Even if I wasn't successful in the arts, the discipline that arts and sports [have] ... build in a young person's life the cognitive skills of working with a team, of working with other people, of completing something. Those are life skills. Even if the young person doesn't become an artist, the disciplinary skills a young person can learn from arts and sports can change a person's life.

Williams has become more active in documentaries with Vice, first with the Viceland series, "Black Market," which delved into the world of illicit trade.

Now in the season six premiere of the Vice documentary series on HBO, Williams dives into America’s juvenile justice system in an episode called "Raised in the System."

The documentary follows Williams as he visits incarcerated young people and his own jailed relative, as well as community members and organizations working to keep kids out of prison.

Williams says he became interested in this issue after he began to see personal connections to the characters he played on screen and the people he met through his work. He joined The Frame to talk about the experience of making this documentary and how he narrowly escaped a similar fate, thanks to finding the arts in his public school. 

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