Michael K. Williams, the actor best known for playing Omar Little on HBO’s “The Wire,” dons a new hat as executive producer for the first time with the microbudget indie “Snow on tha Bluff,” which world premiered at the 2011 Slamdance Film Festival and hits DVD and VOD tomorrow.
Dubbed a “‘Blair Witch Project’ in the hood” by Williams, “Snow on tha Bluff” documents a few days in the life of real-life robbery boy and crack dealer Curtis Snow via a camera that Snow steals from some college kids. The handheld footage bears witness to robberies of rival dealers, brutal gunfights and brawls, all involving real-life figures from the West Atlanta neighborhood known as “tha Bluff,” leaving viewers to wonder: what’s real and what’s not?
Indiewire caught up with Williams to find out how and why he came onto the project (directed by Damon Russell), and what Wu-Tang Clan fans can expect of his upcoming turn as Ol’ Dirty Bastard in the biopic of the rapper, “Dirty White Boy.”
Your visibility obviously helps you get behind projects like these and promote stories that you are extremely passionate about. How did you get involved with this film in particular?
The way I got involved was actually through Twitter. A friend of mine brought this clip for me that was floating around YouTube. I didn’t know what to make of it. The first thing I thought was, “Wow, this guy looks like the real live Omar Little,” you know, Curtis. And then I saw another clip of this guy cut really badly on his face, and that reminded me of when I got cut on my face. It intrigued me enough to make me want to see more. I got in contact with the director, Damon, and said, “How can I see more of this?” We got it together and shot the footage for the feature film and it got picked up.
Given that the film wasn’t completed when you initially came on board, what did you bring to the project apart from your clout as an established artist?
I completely stayed out of their way. Obviously they were already on to something. I saw that from the clips that I’d seen on YouTube and Twitter. So I just got in contact with them and I send I’d like to help to make this thing complete and after that I stayed out of their way.
Were you at all nervous about backing something like this?
As a producer, you’re always nervous about what is going to be received properly or not. But at the end of the day you can’t worry about that. It is what it is, and the reason why I want to produce is to be involved in stories that I find interesting. I want to shed light on people that don’t really get it. The community called the Bluff in Atlanta is a forgotten city. I wanted to lend my help to it as much as I could to get it out.
At the end of the day I can’t worry about what people think, but what I would hope is that people walk away feeling some type of empathy for what they see because these are not actors. It is not like “The Wire” where there was lights-camera-action. Although “The Wire” was based on reality, all “tha Bluff” is reality. Those people are real and they’re really there. Those cuts you see on Curtis’ face are real. Those are his real kids in this movie. It’s not a Hollywood production in that aspect.
Do you know what is real and what isn’t in the film? Did they share that with you or did they keep “tha Bluff” shrowded in mystery?
There real wasn’t anything to believe in, it’s to just share it. I went down to the Bluff and saw enough. Even if every scene in the movie is not 100% real, it really goes down and these are real people showing you what really happens in the Bluff. It is like the ultimate “Blair Witch Project” in the hood, you know what I mean? These are definitely not actors in the sense where they have to audition for a feature. These are real people.
Did you seek out any kind of legal advice before putting your name behind this? Cops do get involved in several scenes.
The only legal advice I got was from my entertainment lawyer to find out how this kind of thing was happening. I don’t live in the Bluff. I don’t know the day to day of what goes on. This film is just a pretty good look into the community and that’s my involvement in it. I’ve come to know Curtis via this project, but I don’t live up there so I don’t spend every day with him. I would hope that the law in that aspect would not do anything to negatively affect this film. I hope that anything that is shown in this film would not bring any type of law enforcement attention into a negative light.
Fans of your work are obviously going to see the correlations between this film that you’ve put your name behind and your work on “The Wire.” Have you been trying actively to separate yourself from that role or are you glad that it still lives on the way it has?
Oh man. I’m ecstatic that the role of Omar and the work that we did as an ensemble cast on “The Wire” still lives on. There’s nothing to do to distance myself from it. You build on that, you grow from that, but you don’t wipe out your foundation. “The Wire” is my foundation. That’s my breakout role and from there I’m still getting calls and offers from people wanting to work with me, solely based on the work I did on “The Wire.” Why would I want to distance myself from that? Build on that if anything.
What did you make of President Obama declaring Omar to be his favorite character of the show?
It’s humbling. I was very grateful. It made more proud and more secure in my admiration for him and backing for him. I’m not a politician, nor do I pretend to know a lot about the world of politics, but I supported President Obama. When he came out and acknowledged “The Wire,” it didn’t make me proud like, “Obama’s talking about me,” it made me glad that he has his finger on the pulse of what’s really going on in the community. He’s not detached.
I didn’t take it as a personal feather in my hat, per say. It was a testimony to how involved he is and how in tune he is to what’s really going on in the streets. He didn’t forget about us and he sees us. It made me want to step up even more as an American citizen and do more for him in my own little world. I’m not trying to go to the White House, I’m not trying to have a beer summit with the dude. I know he’s a busy man. I just try to listen to him, and take in the things that he says, and try and make it work in world and my community. In my own way, I feel like “Snow on tha Bluff” is me doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
In “Snow on tha Bluff” you’re going to see a community; you’re going to see people struggling; you’re going to see a lot of pain; and you’re going to see a lot of hope. There’s this woman, Molly, she lives in the middle of the Bluff and she took her house and decided that she was going to make a place where people can come to get their resumes done, get internet access. If you’re hungry she’d feed you; if you needed a place to stay she’d shelter you; if you needed clothes for you and your children she’d clothe you; if you need to get HIV tested she’ll test you; if you need a hepatitis shot they give that there; and she doesn’t charge anyone a dime.
She’s not a non-profit organization, nor does she get subsidies from the state. It’s all out of her pocket or through what people donate from the surrounding community. She was a shining example of what the President speaks about about just starting where you’re at. You don’t need a lot, you don’t need to put your power in somebody else’s hands. It starts right there in your community. There are little things you can do and you just got to get up and do it. She never asked anybody for anything, and in that sense. She opened up her home to a community that society would be like, “Oh my god, no!” She’s got her doors wide open for anybody who needs help.
That’s what I hope this film, “Snow on tha Bluff”, will evoke more of. More of that approach to the community. Not to shun it or turn your nose up at it. I believe in the concept that we’re all connected, so by me taking my little celebrity to go down there and shed some light on the Bluff via “Snow on tha Bluff,” you know, who’s to say? All I know is that the late, great Tupac Shakur took my little picture, my little dark, grimy polaroid picture laying around the office and he made them come look for me. Where else would I have gotten a chance to be where I’m at today? So, I feel obligated to give it back and reach into a neighborhood where Hollywood is not necessarily going to go.
It sounds like your role as a producer really fulfills you in a totally different way than the other side of your career does. What do you have planned next and what kind of a career do you hope to foster for yourself as a producer?
You know, as a producer I’d like to tell more iconic black American stories. I feel that the youth, especially the inner city youth, are so ignorant as to who are our black role models were — it’s like we have no one to look up to. Man. there are a lot of things that Hollywood doesn’t think make for good entertainment. A lot of times we hear they don’t do well overseas, in the overseas market.
But there are a lot of stores, a lot of great men and women. I had options to the rights of the the Madam CJ Walker story about the first female millionaire in this country. James Baldwin, Miles David — there are a lot of stories of people. We tend to forget about a lot of our great black American leaders or role models or heroes, if you will. I would like to tell more of those stories.
I’d like to tell stories like that and incorporate talent that wouldn’t necessarily get a chance in Hollywood. Give them an opportunity. I would like to be known for that.
I’m not sure how far along you are with it, but what can you tell me about your work playing Ol’Dirty Bastard in the upcoming biopic, “Dirty White Boy”?
Well we haven’t begun filming yet, I’m still in production for the third season of “Boardwalk Empire.” So I’m doing the research. I had the beautiful pleasure of meeting his mother, Mrs. Sherry, who gave me a world of knowledge about who he was when the cameras weren’t rolling. This movie is not about the Wu-Tang and that time — how they got their deal and how they met. It’s not about that. It’s about the last years of his life, and the reason why it’s called “Dirty White Boy” is because his manager, Jerry, was an integral part of the last two years of his life.
And you’re gonna see a lot of things that they didn’t know in the media. There were a lot of faces that you didn’t see in the media. He wasn’t just Ol Dirty Bastard, he was Ason to some people, he was Rusty to other people, to his family. We wanted to explore those other sides, and hopefully the audience will walk away from this movie feeling like, “Wow. This could have happened to anybody.” His untimely death and what happened in his life those last two years could have happened to anybody in any genre. It just happened to be his, but it’s not solely about the Wu-Tang Clan, or just Ol’ Dirty Bastard, it’s about his life, his last years, what he was going through, what he struggled with, and how he dealt with it.
I can’t wait.
Yeah I can’t wait either. It seems to be a pretty hot topic. I didn’t know that the hip-hop community was so on it. Everywhere I go I get a lot of support, so the pressure is on. I gotta deliver. I can’t let this project down.