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Michael K. Williams on His Emotional HBO Documentary Raised in the System

Michael K. Williams is one of Hollywood’s best character actors, and while his career ranges across genres and subject matter, he’s made a particularly strong impression in two shows: The Wire and The Night Of, which both took clinical, journalistic looks at the criminal-justice system. But even with those shows in mind, the documentary Williams has made for the sixth-season premiere of Vice on HBO is a revelation: a thorough, sophisticated, and emotional look at juvenile incarceration, Raised in the System shines a light on the heart of an American crisis. Ahead of its airing on Friday night, Vulture called Williams to talk about his personal connection to the issue, how a meeting with President Obama inspired the project, and the role that shows like The Night Of can play in highlighting social injustice.

How did the opportunity come up to make this, and how did you find the people you talked to?
I had just got invited to the White House to sit with then-president Obama and a few other people — he had packed the room with artists, activists, and politicians that care. We had a bit of a jam session about criminal-justice reform, and after I left there, my head was bursting. One, I was like, Did I just leave the White House? And two, What was the president of the United States asking my opinion on criminal justice for, what the hell do I know?

[Film producer] Michael Skolnik, who was also in the meeting, he looked at me and he says, “Well, Mike, you were there because people closest to the problem are usually the ones closest to the solution, and you know a bit about that.” I was like, “You’re damn right I do.” I’ve been visiting friends and family in prisons and penitentiaries since I was 17 years old, so I have something to say about the process of how someone makes bad decisions, how they get treated in the system, how they come out of the system. I took my family members and my friends — which were Dominic Dupont, my nephew; my cousin Niven Taylor; and my co-worker and dear friend Felicia “Snoop” Pearson — I took their stories to my producers and they were like, “Michael, you have something here, but let’s flesh this out even more.” That began the journey of, let’s look at this deeper.

When you talked to the kids, what surprised you most?
The first thing that caught me off guard was the amount of juvenile arrests in this country. Around the country, we are locking up young people in large numbers. We have the highest amount of juveniles incarcerated in the world, and that shocked me. The amount of time we were giving these children, they would go in traumatized with all sorts of personal issues — domestic, physical, sexual, learning, mental — and then we put them in these adultlike prison situations with no ability, no chance to stimulate their still young and impressionable minds, no chance to build life skills. When they get released, they’re worse than when they went in before. That was a huge learning curve for me. I believe the term that we call it is the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

One of the striking things about the documentary is how emotionally open these kids are, and how they’re struggling with this knowledge themselves.
There was not one child or one young adult that I met during the making of this doc that was incarcerated or in some sort of a lockdown situation that wasn’t very remorseful for what they did to get themselves there. You saw that they learned their lesson. You saw the fear. That was one of the most painful things to look at with the naked eye. It’s sad.

These kids, some of them made some pretty bad choices. I’m not making light of what they did out there. What I am saying is, they should be made to pay for their mistakes, just not in a prison that is not conducive to and doesn’t acknowledge the fact that they’re still young people. While they’re in there, they should be given a chance to deal with whatever personal issues that they have, whatever trauma that they’re dealing with, and they should be allowed to still grow up and be given opportunities to obtain skills so when they come back into society, they have a fighting chance of reentry and not recidivism. What we’re building right now, in my opinion and what my research has shown me during this doc — what the professionals and the judges and the doctors told me — is that in this society of privatizing prisons, we are creating professional prisoners at a very young age. We’re criminalizing adolescent behavior.

They come out and there’s no other option because they can’t get a job, they haven’t gone to school.
You look at my nephew Dominic, who’s in the documentary. He went to prison because his twin brother was being accosted by a group of other young men over a girl, and he went out there to protect his twin brother. Come on, little boys fighting over a girl? That’s adolescence. The only thing my nephew did wrong is there was too much access to illegal weapons in my community, and we’re in a community where we’re taught that violence is the way to deal with our adversities. You mix that bad upbringing with the fact that it’s easier to get an illegal firearm in my community than it is to buy a damn power tool, and you have kids making a lot of bad choices.

Right. That same conflict could’ve happened between white kids in a different environment, but they don’t have access to guns in the same way. It’s how racial prejudice has affected these communities.
This doc couldn’t have come out at a better time, with the climate and the conversation about gun violence in our nation. I think it’s about darn time, and I’m so grateful to have something to contribute to the conversation, because it’s been plaguing my community for decades now. Gun violence is nothing new. It’s been plaguing poor urban communities in the inner city for decades, so let’s look at why our kids are having such easy access to these illegal weapons. How are they getting into our communities? I’m hoping that we can start this dialogue because it needs to be looked at.

Obviously, the president you spent time with in the White House is very different than the president who’s now in the White House. From your perspective, what can be done that isn’t dependent on major political decisions and policies?
Boy, you said a mouthful right there. There’s a lot we can do, there’s a lot. You look at those brothers in Richmond, California — those young men that started the [Office of Neighborhood Safety]. You look at that Judge [Denise] Cubbon in Toledo, Ohio — she’s taking the funds that are already in her district, and she and her team of counselors are coming up with these programs that gives these kids a chance to stimulate something positive in their minds, trigger some logical and positive-thinking skills that they never got a chance to develop. When you see these, I guess the term to call them, and I’m putting my quotation fingers up, is “grassroots programs,” that is what I believe our community needs to take a look at.

Me personally, I’ve gone on to start a nonprofit. Blah, blah, blah, you know what nonprofits are like, everybody got one [laughs], but what makes mine different is my journey through making this doc. When I met [ONS director] DeVone Boggan, he said he had to be willing to go into the community, find these young men, and be willing to partner with them — not just single them out and get rid of them. When he said that, it made me want to fashion after him and add my own spin to it with the arts and crafts. I believe we have enough resources within our community that we should be able to go back into our cities and take back our kids, the ones that are perpetrating and the ones that are being perpetrated upon — they’re all ours.

I was struck by how much these issues were also considered in The Night Of. What role do you think art has in helping shine a light?
Art can do a lot of things with touching on topics that plague a community. With The Night Of, it gave a voice and it showed how quick and how instant one bad decision can change your entire life. The Night Of gave an almost voyeuristic view into what really goes on in a community when you are not white and not rich, what could happen if a certain situation came your way. It could go a very different way for you than it would for someone who had money or was not of color.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Michael K. Williams on His New HBO Documentary