On Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel Poiccard, and Michael K. Williams’ Omar Little
‘The game is out there, and it’s either play or get played.”’— Omar Little
‘I told you: being afraid is the worst sin there is.’ — Michel Poiccard
In one of the most iconic moments of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de Souffle (aka Breathless) , the film’s anti-hero Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) stands before a poster of the Humphrey Bogart boxing film The Harder They Fall, rubs his thumb over his impossibly full lips, and mutters the salute: ‘Bogey…’. In The Wire, Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) announces himself by pursing his lips together and whistling the melody of an old nursery rhyme, ‘the farmer in the Dell’, sauntering on screen with the chill self-assuredness of Bogart’s Philip Marlowe.
These two characters—thieves, hoods, and cynics—are both, in their first instants, icons of cool. They are both anachronisms and innovations at once: simultaneously the result of refined genre beatitudes, while also devilish arrangers of form, structure, and trope: kinetic forces that move so fast and wild through their respective texts that those texts can’t contain them. They burst out, and now, they live among us.
Both Jean-Paul Belmondo and Michael K. Williams, who brought these characters to life, died last week under very different circumstances, after living very different lives.
Belmondo was the son of a leading academic sculptor and a painter, a class clown turned amateur boxer turned drama student at the Paris Conservatory. Although not his first role, Breathless made Belmondo a star and a touchstone of youth culture. He would remain on the periphery of the French New-Wave for the next ten years, while slowly becoming a French Connery or Caine of sorts, a charismatic action-man who did his own stunts, exuding ineffable Gaelic charm and cheeky energy throughout his career. Belmondo seemed too cool for the cool kids that adored and intellectualised him, and perhaps resented his tilt towards populism. After a stroke in 2004 paralysed him on one side of his body, his career slowed down. At 88, however, he managed to die loved, lionised, and lauded.
Williams life was something else entirely. Raised in the Venderveer Projects in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, Williams was a survivor of sexual molestation, drugs, and violence. He left school to become a dancer after hearing Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. Intermittently homeless, sleeping on the subway as he traveled to Times Square to hustle dance studios and record labels for work, finding acceptance and community in the queer club scene of 80s New York, Williams would eventually dance for George Michael and Madonna. On his 25th birthday he got into a bar fight that left him with the signature scar that ran from his crown, across his face, to his chin: ‘I zigged when I should have zagged,’ he quipped in an interview. But who knows who Williams would have become if he hadn’t. The scar became his calling card—it caused Tupac Shakur to pick his Polaroid out and have him act in the 1996 film Bullet. It was The Wire, however, that plucked Williams out of obscurity and made him a star, an icon, a myth, and a mascot all at once. Since then he continued to knock out a string of brilliant performances, all bolstered by Williams’s impossible-to-disguise empathy, which shone through his eyes in each and every role he played. There was no detachment with Michael K. Williams, therein, perhaps, lay the trigger for his tragic death at the age of 54.
What Williams and Belmondo don’t share in biography they share in mythos, a mythos pinned to their best recognised roles, Omar Little and Michel Poiccard. Both performances still play like acts of defiance. Belmondo, with his mashed boxer’s nose, and Williams, with his arcing scar, had faces which marked them out as something else when compared to the Ken doll prettiness of their contemporaries. They both appear like malformed spectres of pop-culture fantasising: the faces of a million daydreaming wannabes suddenly interrupted by these roadblocks and hold-ups of life. But there they were, on screen, having both broken through, smirking as if they know they were not supposed to be there, but defying the powers that be to throw them out.
These are performances that zig when they should have zagged, and are the better for it. Belmondo’s Poiccard in hyperactive, thuggishly horny, bored, and distractible—he exists purely in a state of momentum, with no honesty, scruples, or convictions, and no motivation outside of wanting to drive fast cars, goose pretty girls, and pocket whatever he finds in their purse. If Poiccard is movement, then Williams’s Omar is stillness. He presents as a jaguar that stalks and strolls, the apex predator, feared, idolised, and imitated (we see kids playing as Omar at one point), a slow moving big cat that lets the jungle move around him while he sets the pace—calm and steady, until it’s time to pounce.
Where Poiccard wears his heterosexuality like dynamite wrapped around his head ala Pierrot le Fou, Omar wears his queerness like a bandolier. The rapturous first kiss we see between Omar and his boyfriend was improvised by Williams. ‘In the hood, especially among the Black community, homosexuality is taboo,’ Williams told an interviewer, ‘But I get real gangsters coming up and saying, “Omar’s my man! I love Omar!” I think it might have made some people think differently about things.’
That feedback loop between ‘real gangsters’ and screen gangsters has been tangled and self-serving since Cagney first picked up a Tommy gun. With Poiccard, Belmondo collapsed boyhood cowboy vs Indians gangster fantasies into the immediacy of post-war youth disillusionment and disconnection: that first generation of screen junkies, surfing the first wave of mass-accelerated media, seeing themselves as James Dean as they crash into the intersection of matinee idol and 20-somethings identity crises. Omar was the creation of two crime reporters and the real life urban legend stickup men of Baltimore, given life by Williams, who contained within him the past 30 years of black-queer pop culture, from Janet Jackson dancehall voguing to Tupac’s ghetto cowboys, to late 20th century media’s absorption, appropriation, and regurgitation of that culture. Williams distilled it, humanised it, and impossibly, grounded it in a performance that remained personal even as it was was subsumed by the show’s community and critics, to the point where you had then President Obama saying that Omar Little was his favourite character in his favourite show of all time.
In Poiccard and Omar you have the start and end point of the last half of the 20th’s century’s idea of a rebel. Poiccard was a rejection of post-war nationalism and bourgeois ‘community’ (we see him cooly uninterested as de Gaulle literally throws a parade behind him), his refusal of any kind of humility or politeness and the ease in which he slips into Godard’s fractal storytelling and fragmented editing all speaks to what was coming for the youth of the 60s: nihilism, confusion, determined uncertainty. With Omar, arriving at the start of the 21st century, post 9/11, we get a force that is certainly violent but undoubtedly moral. ‘A man got to have a code,’ he tells us, a proudly romantic notion in a decidedly unromantic time. Omar refutes the indifferently hip charismatic crim archetype that had played out in ‘cool’ pop culture since Poiccard took a bullet to the back. Omar is a member of a community, he is caring, he is loving, and unlike Poiccard, he obeys a strict set of rules. He resettles the furniture that Poiccard upturned 50 years prior: Omar’s cynicism is poignant and aimed straight at structures and systems, where Poiccard’s was aimed at anyone anything that was not Michel Poiccard.
And so, with Williams and Belmondo’s passing we also get the passing of a certain kind of cool, one rooted in slower times, and one which remains difficult to bottle. It is one inextricably linked to the beginning and end of the first half of the 20th century, which was brought to life by performers who are nearly impossible to imagine emerging in the Disney monoculture, their faces scarred and beaten, their energy wild and their empathy overwhelming, accidental iconoclasts who zig where the world zags.