In Black Market With Michael K. Williams, Viceland’s documentary series about crime and desperation, host Williams promises to find out “why people do the things they do.” The answer, it turns out, is always the same: poverty and need, whether it takes the form of addiction, escapism, or systemic racism and inequality. A recovering addict and a product of Brooklyn housing projects — biographical details he alludes to in several episodes — Williams intuitively understands that crime is a logical, if risky, way of life for his subjects. “When the system fails you,” he reasons, “you create your own system.” Or, as one of his carjacking interviewees shrugs, “They don’t want to give us jobs, so fuck it.”
If you’ve seen Vice’s short-form docs on its website or on HBO, you know what to expect from Black Market. In each of the debut season’s six episodes, the last of which will air tomorrow night (August 9), Williams hangs out with thieves, poachers, drug users, gun runners, and possible killers — many in masks or balaclavas, their voices distorted — to learn why crime pays for them. Each half-hour installment is light on statistics and heavy on semi-immersive stabs at authenticity — some insightful, some nauseatingly voyeuristic. The revelation in the excellent third episode that one of Williams’s interviewees had last used his gun to shoot someone just ten minutes before their conversation — and that he himself was fatally shot hours after their meeting — is devastating. But we don’t need the lingering scene in the otherwise fascinating sixth episode, in which a 21-year-old heroin addict shoots up, then falls into a stupor, for all intents and purposes dead to the world.
Focusing primarily on black communities in America, Black Market is arguably less informative than the more globe-trotting Vice installments on HBO. Unlike those more journalistically oriented segments, Williams’s project here is to create empathy. In contrast to the badass outlaws he’s best known for playing — Omar on The Wire, Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, and his current role as prisoner-in-charge-of-the-prison Freddy on HBO’s The Night Of — Williams is a scrawny softie who evidently doesn’t mind opening up his heart to strangers. (Growing up, his nickname was “Corny Mike.”) He feels it all, and he wants you to as well.
Williams’s genuine sympathy and genial curiosity — along with a hint of celebrity dazzle — make up for Black Market’s thematic repetition and occasional lack of depth. (It is a tad surprising that no one seems fazed by meeting the great Omar Little. One South African abalone poacher even jokes that he thought Williams would be younger, pointing at the host’s gray beard.) Williams is a skilled interviewer, getting criminals to speak candidly about the tricks of their trade and, more compelling, how they feel about hurting or even killing other people. The show hits its stride in the fourth and sixth episodes, which deal with lesser-known subcultures. Devoted respectively to the codeine-laced “lean” drink and London grocery shoplifters who give five-finger discounts to should-be welfare recipients who can’t afford to buy food at store prices, they are as much about resourcefulness as about transgressions. Among Williams’s more famous subjects is Soulja Boy, who credits his opioid “drank” with his creativity and productivity.
Frustratingly, though perhaps inevitably, every installment ends up in the same place, with Williams back in the studio, expressing regret that the stories he’s told have to exist. He’s done his best to create awareness and forge a bridge toward understanding, but Williams is too paralyzed by institutional oppression to do anything beyond informing and giving a sad shrug. But that’s not on him; it’s on all of us.