Every now and then, the Interweb provides a thought-provoking nugget of gold that challenges me to reflect on my real-life experiences. Earlier this week, I hit the proverbial jackpot by catching watching actor, Michael K. Williams’ short video about being typecast in Hollywood (you can check out the video here). According to Webster, typecast holds the following two definitions:
a) to cast (an actor or actress) repeatedly in the same type of role.
b) to cast (an actor or actress) in a part of calling for the same characteristics as those possessed by the performer.
For those unfamiliar with Michael K. Williams, he is a versatile actor whose been featured in a few unforgettable places on both the large and small screens. Trapped in the Closest (1-5), Law & Order, the Sopranos, and Williams was even a backup dancer for Madonna and George Michael (RIP), yet a majority of people will recognize him as “Omar Little” from The Wire or “Chalky White” on Boardwalk Empire. Many of his roles tend to lean towards the gangster trope, so it was surprising to see his video with The Atlantic entitled, “Typecast” for their Question Your Answers series, where Williams questions if he relegated himself to only playing a certain role for a Black male. Although he was having the conversation with himself, I felt that it was a poignant look into the internal struggles that marginalized communities face on a daily basis. As different characters appear to help him answer the question, you’ll notice the level of complexity in trying to answer what some may deem a “simple question”.
The conversation took a turn when a stereotypically tough-guy character explains that Williams will always play some form of “Mike”: “gangster Mike, Southern Mike, self-denial gangster Mike, and old-timer gangster Mike” to which Michael Williams lets them know he’s not a gangster. Williams argues that he chose the roles that he played and created the path for himself which is when another character coolly asks, “Did you?” The character presses further:
“Yea, did you? Or did they choose you? Do you think we would be doing what we’re doing if we had a choice?” Face it man, we’re from a certain type of people, from a certain type of place, that look a certain type of way. Do you know what that makes us?”
“If I were typecast, I’d be in jail or dead. I’m here and I got out. I got myself out.”
“Are you sure about that?”
In a 2:50 video, I watched an internal conversation that I know many of my friends and peers have had with themselves in their respective careers and lives.
“Did I get this job because of the skills that I have or was it by talent?” “
“Are they filling a quota for “diversity” purposes?
“Real men don’t cry!”
“Girl, I am not serving food to no man!”
Hell, I’ve found myself asking the same questions when I was accepted into my doctoral program. Because I’m Black, am I being typecast to play the social justice and equity warrior role? Was I the diversity hire? Or better yet, being one of the lone Black men in my department, some of my non-Black students try to typecast me as the hip-hop guy that’s supposed to know all of the new Future songs (which I do) or shuck and jive for their enjoyment. Sometimes they think that’s all I know until I hit them with some stuff from Naruto (thanks to my little in Big Brothers, Big Sisters!).
Being melaninated and educated is a full time job in itself that I believe is taken for granted. No matter where we go or what role we choose (or not choose), race will always play a part. There is no simple answer to the question of “do you think I’ve been typecast?” whether in movies or at your 9-5 gig. It’s a tough question that I think marginalized communities will forever tango with and have to not get too wrapped up in. I’ll admit, it’s difficult, but I definitely pick and choose my battles. There was a moment at one of my jobs when a peer was trying to put me on a wanted poster for an event, and I quickly objected to this because, you know, I’m a Black man…on a wanted poster. Nah, I’m good.
One of my favorite moments from the video is when the “gangster” character asked if Omar (from the Wire) could’ve been played by someone who identifies as White. If you’ve seen the Wire, you’d know there is no way that someone White could’ve played that character. That moment resonated and I felt that he was saying that because of Williams’ background, he was able to authentically enhance that character. This made me think about the roles that I play and how they can be a blessing and a curse. I’m able to occupy spaces that I know some of my White counterparts cannot enter with students as well as sit at tables to discuss the issues affecting my students of color. Yet, it’s a curse because I’m “too White” for some spaces and waaay “too Black” for other spaces, but there IS power in my experience. When I had a bout of imposter syndrome or the feeling of being “typecast”, my faculty member pointed out that academe (and many other social institutions for that matter)wasn’t created for people of color, so how can I be an imposter to begin with? A feeling of empowerment overcomes my soul when I think about this conversation we had. Remember most of the spaces we occupy weren’t even made for us from the beginning and we have to decide how we are going to operate in these spaces. You bring a unique set of skills, insight, and much needed melanin to the table that they’re lucky to have with them. You’re more than you know!