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

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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.

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.”

As well as the Williams film, The Atlantic today also debuts “Bold Questions,” an animated editorial series from Atlantic Studios featuring interviews with Caitlyn Jenner, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Ta-Nehisi Coates, with and more to come.

The Atlantic’s president, Bob Cohn, said in a note introducing the work: “The central premise of the campaign is that The Atlantic has a 160-year tradition of questioning conventional answers. We scrutinize our own [and others’] opinions; we challenge the received wisdom; we’re open to ideas that mess with our assumptions. We do all this as part of our commitment to bring clarity and original thinking to the most consequential issues of the day.”

Williams returns in his starring role in SundanceTV’s original series Hap and Leonard starting on March 15.

Client: The Atlantic

Agency: Wieden + Kennedy New York
Executive Creative Director: Karl Lieberman
Creative Directors: Jaclyn Crowley, Al Merry
Copywriter: Brock Kirby
Head of Integrated Production: Nick Setounski
Executive Producer: Alison Hill
Head of Planning: Dan Hill
Brand Strategist: Brian Ritter
Social Director: Jessica Breslin
Junior Social Strategist: Carlos Tovar
Management Supervisor: Samantha Wagner
Media Director: David Stopforth
Media Strategist: Sophie Novick
Project Manager: Danielle Rounds
Business Affairs Managers: Sara Jagielski, Patrick O’Donoghue, Lindsey Timko
Director of PR & Publishing: Teressa Iezzi

Production Company: O Positive
Director: David Shane
Director of Photography: Maryse Alberti
Partner/Executive Producer: Ralph Laucella
Line Producer: Marc Grill

Editorial Company: Mackcut
Editor: Gavin Cutler
Assistant Editor: Pamela Petruski
Executive Producer: Gina Pagano

VFX Company: The Mill
Executive Producer: Verity Grantham
Producer: Clairellen Wallin
Coordinator: Kate Aspell
Shoot Supervisor: Antoine Douadi
2D Lead Artist: Antoine Douaid

Telecine Company: The Mill
Color Producer: Natalie Westerfield
Color Coordinator: Elizabeth Nagle
Colorist: Josh Bohoskey
Color Assist: Daniel Moisoff, Nate Seymour, Amanda Bernhardt, Zack Wilpon

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@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.