Days before the actor Michael K. Williams died, he stood in his penthouse apartment in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, hanging art on the wall and talking to a friend about what he wanted the future of his career to look like.
“He kept talking about how he wanted to be like a Berry Gordy in film,” said Williams’s friend and collaborator Greg Cally. “And he wanted to just discover Black talents and give them an opportunity.”
Williams was best known for the hard-edge, law-defying characters he played on television, most notably the shotgun-wielding gangster Omar Little in “The Wire” and the Atlantic City bootlegger Chalky White in “Boardwalk Empire.”
But in the final months of his life, Williams had been talking about how he wanted to move away from acting-for-hire and focus on roles with more creative control, friends said. This included the project he was working on at the time, the second season of Vice TV’s “Black Market With Michael K. Williams.” As the show’s star and executive producer, Williams sought to explain the human desperation and systemic inequity underpinning criminal industries, which in the new season include online scams, illegal cannabis markets and bootleg body enhancements.
Several days after that conversation with Cally, Williams stopped returning phone calls. His nephew, Dominic Dupont, grew concerned, and on Sept. 6, he and his wife went to the 54-year-old actor’s apartment. They found him dead from what was later ruled an accidental drug overdose involving fentanyl.
The outpouring of grief that followed stretched from Hollywood, where many of Williams’s collaborators considered him both a stunning talent and a loyal friend, to the East Flatbush neighborhood Brooklyn, where Williams grew up and had remained a dedicated and visible presence.
His death also clouded the future of unfinished work like “Black Market.” While the production had recently completed principal photography, Williams had finished the narration and on-camera commentary for only three of the six episodes.
The production’s first major meeting after Williams’s death was heavy with emotion, but the creators were unanimous in their resolve, said Marsha Cooke, an executive producer.
“The constant refrain was, ‘We have to do this for Mike,’” Cooke said. “This is his legacy, and we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that it’s done the way he would want it to be.”
Remembering Michael K. Williams
The actor, who starred in the pioneering HBO series “The Wire,” was found dead on Sept. 6, 2021, in his home in Brooklyn. He was 54.
The first season of “Black Market,” which premiered in 2016, featured an array of felonious activities, including carjacking in Newark, N.J., and illegal fishing off the coast of South Africa. Williams asked his subjects to reveal both the procedural “how” and the more emotional “why” of their illicit crafts. He was just as open with his own story, recounting the battle with drug addiction that began during his time on “The Wire.”
Season 2, which premiered earlier this month, shares the same objective: to explore criminal subcultures in order to reveal why people resort to crime. The reasons include poverty and a sense of alienation from larger society, along with a belief that it is morally acceptable to steal from major corporations like banks. (Episodes are available to stream at ViceTV.com.)
“Your back is against the wall; you do what you gotta do,” Williams says in the first episode, about digital con artists and identity thieves. “I sure know I did.”
In between interviews with scammers who steal people’s financial information and so-called boosters who methodically steal clothes for resale, Williams recalls on camera that he started scamming in the ’90s because it was a safer alternative to drug dealing. (“If you type in nine digits enough times, eventually you was going to get someone’s Social Security number,” he quips.)
After Williams’s death, the production secured the help of three of his actor friends: Tracy Morgan, who befriended him after meeting at a Knicks game; Felicia Pearson, whose chance meeting with Williams at a Baltimore nightclub led to a three-season arc on “The Wire”; and Rosie Perez, who maintained a friendship with Williams after meeting him in the 1980s, when he was a talked-about dancer in the club scene. The three agreed to narrate the rest of the season without payment — the production instead made donations to charities of their choosing.
Perez, who narrates an episode about a black market for water that has arisen in Puerto Rico, said in an email that she had initially disliked the angle of the show and had spoken with Williams about it, telling him that although she knew they both personally understood the desperation of living in poverty, allowing theft to become a way of life wasn’t right.
She said Williams told her: “‘I’m just trying to understand and trying not to judge desperate people’s desperate behavior. All I ask of you is to just watch and do the same.’”
But the new season does try to avoid glorifying crime, emphasizing in the first episode, for example, that no online scam is “victimless.” It also talks to people who ended up in prison for years after they became involved in the illegal activities at issue.
Williams’s entreaties to his younger subjects to leave the world of crime are delivered cautiously. At one point, he asks two cryptocurrency-trading scammers to imagine what they could accomplish if they directed the intelligence they put toward these schemes into something else.
“I think about that all the time,” one replied.
Williams slipped easily into a mentor role. He met Cally at a Knicks game about a decade ago, when Cally was a locker room attendant at Madison Square Garden. (Cally intervened when a security guard questioned why Williams was going into the V.I.P. section.) They started talking, and soon the actor was providing a boost to Cally’s nascent journalism career, including giving him a production job on “Raised in the System,” Williams’s 2018 documentary about juvenile incarceration that aired as part of Vice’s HBO series. (That show, “Vice,” is now on Showtime.) Cally eventually became a producer and director on “Black Market.”
Not long after Williams invited Pearson to the set of “The Wire,” she scored a role on the show as the nail-gun-toting killer Snoop. She has since appeared in the Spike Lee films “Chi-Raq” and “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” and is working with the “Wire” co-creator Ed Burns on a limited series about her life.
Williams, she said in a phone interview, “could pull things out of you that you didn’t even know you had in you.”
Dupont, who started working with Williams after he got out of prison and was featured in “Raised in the System,” said that his uncle had empathized with other people’s suffering to the point that it took an emotional toll. “I think that became a heavy weight to bear at times,” he said.
Williams’s investment in some of the subjects of “Black Market” is evident. In the third episode of the season, which premiered this week, he visits Baltimore (where people still call him “Omar”) to interview Chad Arrington, a rapper who performed as Chad Focus and was sentenced to 30 months in prison after he fraudulently charged more than $4 million to a company he worked for, in an effort to boost his music career (including by purchasing fake social media followers).
Williams was visibly moved by Arrington’s explanation for his scheme — to succeed as a rapper and then invest in his struggling community — and joined him outside a Baltimore courthouse before his sentencing.
“This is where my dreams came true, and at the same time, I almost died on these streets, man, due to my addiction,” he told Arrington. “To have the opportunity to be alive, to come back and to be a part of your journey … it’s what it’s all about for me.”