Michael K. Williams Is Embracing the Title "Activist"

Michael Kenneth Williams and Michael Elijah Walters - Vice Season 6 Premiere - Getty - H 2018
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The 'Bessie' and 'The Night Of' Emmy nominee premiered 'Raised in the System,' his new documentary with Vice on HBO, Tuesday night in New York.

Michael K. Williams is finally calling himself an activist. The Emmy-nominated actor said at Tuesday night’s premiere of Raised in the System that he’s long been reluctant to wear the title, but after having executive produced the season six premiere of Vice on HBO as a follow-up of sorts to his Black Market on Viceland, he’s come to embrace it.

“I’ve always struggled with that word in regards to my name, but today I’ve owned it,” he told a theater full of friends, colleagues, and supporters at the Whitby Hotel. “[In] the real definition of that, we think of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, who really put things into action, or Malcolm X. But my new simple definition for the word ‘activist’ that I can wrap my mind around in regards to myself is I went into this documentary feeling helpless and hopeless and not knowing what I could do, how I could make a difference ... and I came out on the other side of Raised in the System [with] some pep in my step. I feel like I can do something with these two hands to make a difference in one person’s life.”

The hourlong documentary deep dives into the United States’ mass incarceration epidemic and poses that the cure relies on fixing the juvenile justice system. By highlighting not just the growing need for reform but the lawmakers, nonprofits and counties that are implementing actionable change, as well, Williams told The Hollywood Reporter before the premiere screening that he hopes his Raised in the System is a call to action and a roadmap for possible solutions.

“When young people, adolescents, need to be reprimanded for their bad choices, there needs to be facilities that allow them to know that they’ve made a very bad choice and that they’re paying for that, and also have some sort of programming that still acknowledges the fact that they are minors, young malleable minds in an adolescent stage with the inability to make healthy decisions,” he said. “That is what adolescent means. It’s a very awkward time in all of our lives, and we’ve all done some stupid stuff.”

Raised in the System was an especially emotional and personal journey for Williams, who at one point in the documentary breaks down in tears while profiling at-risk youth in Newark, New Jersey. Even on the carpet, he became emotional while discussing his time interviewing his own family and friends for the project. His nephew, Dominic Dupont, his cousin, Nevin, and his friend and The Wire co-star Felicia Pearson all fell into the prison system as minors for varying crimes and are featured in Raised in the System today. Dupont, whom Williams has previously credited as inspiring his performance as Freddy in HBO’s The Night Of, was also in attendance Tuesday night.

“There were a lot of mixed emotions,” Williams said of interviewing those he knew. “During the filming of this, you know, as much as I love Felicia and Nevin and Dominic, it’s not often that we talk about ‘the day’ — what actually happened. We’re not sitting around talking about that day. We’re usually speaking about positiveness and [looking to] the future and staying in the moment and not reminiscing in the past about where we went wrong. We learned from our mistakes and we move on, right? But during the making of Raised in the System, to see the people that I love go through this broken time in their life when they were in pain and lost and had way too much access to illegal firearms, made some really bad decisions, and the remorse that I saw in their eyes ... the pain that they felt from their actions, it was humbling. And it broke my heart.”

Pearson’s Wire creator David Simon was also in attendance for the Midtown Manhattan premiere. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, he expressed excitement for Williams’ opportunity to showcase voices like Pearson’s, who Simon recalls Williams found in a Baltimore club after she was released from prison and brought her to him and writer-producer Ed Burns. “He said, ‘There’s something here. Talk to her.’ And given that one opportunity to sort of change the cycle of her life, she has. It was with fits and starts and with bumps and bruises, but you can claim something for that life now that is worthwhile and that is deserving.”

He later admitted, too, to feeling a “distant” pride in Williams for his latest creative venture with Vice.

“He’s been putting up with my storytelling long enough that it’s now time for me to honor some of his, and I think he’s chosen a meaningful topic,” Simon said. “I don’t want it to come off as paternalistic, but I knew him when he was a younger actor who was sort of mastering that craft. But his understanding of story was very acute, even when we were doing The Wire, and I always had a feeling he would either be directing or producing something. So it’s high time.” 

Raised in the System airs Friday at 11 p.m. ET on HBO.