Ava DuVernay penned a heartfelt tribute to late actor Michael K. Williams on Instagram Monday. Williams starred in the 2019 Netflix crime drama miniseries When They See Us, which DuVernay co-wrote and directed, and the pair had mutual admiration and respect for one another. In a 2020 video conversation with Vanity Fair, Williams also credited DuVernay with helping him get clean.
Williams, who also starred in The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, died Monday inside his Brooklyn home at the age of 54. A cause of death was not immediately revealed, pending the results of the city’s medical examiner.
DuVernay recalled moments the two spent together and Williams’ dedication to his craft, as well as how he was an inspiration to many in her statement. “I remember the times you’d come on set even when you weren’t on the call sheet. Just to share a hug. To cheer us on. Strolling in like the King that you were,” DuVernay wrote. Williams played Bobby McCray, Antron McCray’s father, in the miniseries, which told the tale of the so-called Central Park Five, a group of young boys who were wrongly accused of assaulting and raping a jogger in the New York Park.
“I remember you sending me a picture of yourself as a young man and sharing with me that the boys whose story we were telling were a reflection of you — and we were going to get it right,” she added. “I remember you taking the young actors to the beach on your own and talking to them about things I couldn’t — about being a young, Black man in New York at the time — and how grateful I was.”
In the 2020 Vanity Fair conversation, Williams spoke about how his experiences inform his work. “I don’t get to assimilate into anything other than the black experience,” he said. “For me to be given the opportunity to be a storyteller and to tell the narrative of people in my community that look like me, I wear that as a badge of honor.” He also spoke about meeting with DuVernay to discuss working on When They See Us, saying that he related to the story personally and felt that “it could’ve easily been Central Park Six.” “I was older than them, I was also living a very at-risk life in the streets of New York,” he said.
During a lunch meeting with DuVernay, she also called Williams out on his reputation for drug use. “[She asked] ‘What’s up with you, man? Heard you’re a bit of a loose cannon, you OK? What’s going on?’ And I knew exactly what she was talking about. And I also knew that I would lose if I lied to her. That would hurt me if I did not come clean. And so I did,” he said. “I remember leaving that meeting saying that if I get this opportunity I’m going to blow this shit out the water. I’m going to be 110% present. I’m going to relate to every living thing I don’t care if it’s a fly…Ava renewed my vows with the reasons why I became an artist in the first place.”
In DuVernay’s tribute, she spoke of the legacy he leaves behind: “You, brother, touched many. Through your personal interactions big and small, through your community activism, through your struggles, through your triumphs, through your glorious work. You moved many. You moved me. What you doubted in life, be certain of now, dear brother. Be certain. You were a flash of love — now gone. But never forgotten.”