Michael K. Williams Debates Himself in This Riveting, Theatrical Short Film for The Atlantic

The actor wonders if he's been typecast, but that's just part of the story

Michael K. Williams delivers not one but four wonderful acting performances in this fascinating, brilliantly written long-form ad for The Atlantic, created by Wieden + Kennedy New York, in which the actor questions his career in Hollywood—and whether he really made his own path to where he is today.

“You think I’m being typecast?” says Williams—known for playing Omar Little in The Wire and Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire—at the beginning of the film, clearly weighing some life issues as he sips a shake at home on his couch.

“I don’t know. Think this cat is typecast?” comes the answer.

The camera pulls back, and we see a second Michael K. Williams further down the couch, petting a cat. Eventually they are joined by two more versions of Williams, and they proceed to debate cats, poodles, actors—and whether a black man in Hollywood can really write his own destiny.

The remarkable short film was directed by O Positive’s David Shane. Check it out below. (Note: Could be NSFW due to a few curse words.)

The piece has a great theatrical vibe (or would if the same actor could appear with three other versions of himself on a stage). The scene is wonderfully written—at once funny, challenging and remarkably topical. Its metaphor about free will versus fate tells a bigger story than one man’s personal reckoning with identity. Indeed, it hits on larger anxieties about truth-seeking and trust, and pointed issues of race and self-determination, in a post-Obama age. (The final shot of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent cover story “My President Was Black” quietly reinforces this, and Williams’ line about Obama in the film is a brutal, cutting moment indeed.)

By thoughtfully and entertainingly illuminating critical issues of the age, the film perfectly casts The Atlantic as a media vehicle that can shake you out of your own certainties, in a time of conflict, when you may be clinging to them most dearly—as the tagline says, to make you “Question Your Answers.”

Sam Rosen, vp of brand at The Atlantic, tells Adweek that the lead writer on the piece was Brock Kirby, a freelance senior copywriter who does a lot of work with W+K and is very familiar with Williams’ body of work. Kirby worked with Jaclyn Crowley, W+K’s creative director on The Atlantic, with input from W+K executive creative director Karl Lieberman and the Atlantic team.

“Michael immediately fell love with the script, but he also made it his own—improvising in key places, and adding his signature weight and magnetism in ways that gave the script new meaning, depth and humor,” Rosen says.

Clearly, in the age of Trump, the media is at a critical stage in its evolution. Broadcast and print media are struggling to light the darkened pathways, even as they come under attack from the country’s leadership, and as fake news and unchecked opinion fill the echo chambers of social. But more than anything, “Question Your Answers” is simply about urging readers to change their perspective, “to break down their information silos, challenge established answers, and embrace a lifestyle of continuous interrogation and exploration,” The Atlantic says.

Williams "fell love with the script, but he also made it his own—improvising in key places, and adding his signature weight and magnetism in ways that gave the script new meaning, depth and humor."
Sam Rosen, vp of brand, The Atlantic

That message, if hardly groundbreaking, is a welcome reminder of the importance of self-examination and self-reflection when it’s so much easier to focus on The Other.

“It seems like everywhere you look, people are shouting their opinions,” says W+K’s Crowley. “The Atlantic respects introspection and the vulnerability that comes with exploring and questioning your beliefs. This kind of thinking is not only refreshing, but necessary.”

“We tried to create the vibe of four dudes, four friends just hanging out and having this kind of thoughtful discussion,” adds Shane, whose commercial directing credits include Bud Light’s “Swear Jar” and HBO’s “Awkward Family Viewing.” “The degree of difficulty of [Williams’] performance is actually hard to fully understand. He was playing, in effect, four characters, and trying to keep track of them.”