Omar Little as the God of War

by on Dec.25, 2010

Omar Little, if you didn’t already know, is a black gay character in The Wire who steals from drug dealers.  He also happens to be one of the few characters to consistently live by a self-professed moral code.  This despite his robberies and the drug lords who repeatedly, if unsuccessfully, make him their target. 

Omar’s status as the show’s moral compass (confirmed when President Obama called him his favorite TV character) is particularly striking in light of his vulnerability.  While the drug-dealing residents of East and West Baltimore cluster in gangs—with the gangs themselves waging battle or forging unholy alliances—Omar works alone.  Sometimes a lover or a few partners accompany him, but usually it’s just him and his shotgun.  Even more so than the increasingly merciless gang members whose lives the “game” inevitably cuts short, Omar flirts with death.  When he takes revenge on the Barksdales for murdering his boyfriend by daring to testify against their hitman, he risks his own safety in the streets.  His ethics exceed his survival needs:

Omar’s body, which literalizes the outlaw figure I’ve previously analyzed in Joel Burns and David Wojnarowicz, also reframes the monstrosity Jasbir Puar identifies (via Achille Mbembe) in the suicide bomber:

“a body machined together through metal and flesh, an assemblage of the organic and the inorganic; a death not of the self or of the other, but both simultaneously; self-annihilation as the ultimate form of resistance and self-preservation. This body forces a reconciliation of opposites through their inevitable collapse—a perverse habitation of contradiction. As a figure in the midst of always already dying even as it is in the midst of becoming, like the homosexual afflicted with HIV, the suicide bomber sutures his or her status as sexually perverse.”

There’s something like the stance of the suicide bomber in Omar’s staunch, if self-annihilating, convictions.  Yet, there’s also something animal about his multifariously outlawed body, whose exuberance overflows with the unpredictability Darwin observed in nonhuman homosexuality.  Not only does this dangerous thief sleep with men and love Greek myth, but he deftly reverses a trained lawyer’s accusations of the parasitism and immorality typically aimed at the black, gay, and/or poor subject:  “Just like you, man.  I got the shotgun.  You got the briefcase.  It’s all in the game, though, right?”

By exposing the lawyer’s hypocrisy and demonstrating how inner city criminal and legal professional mirror each other, Omar achieves the “reconciliation of opposites” more violently forced by the suicide bomber.  In contrast with those who fought for DADT’s repealment and tacitly aligned queerness with nationalism, Omar uncompromisingly challenges the terms by which the legal system classifies and disqualifies bodies.  His excessive animal display—think of fish whose bright colors may seem pointless in dark depths—makes him our unlikely hero.  But let’s not forget how, far from seeking the law’s recognition, his queer heroism consists in manipulating the law, in scrambling it:  the judge himself is at a loss for words at the end of the clip.

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    Lucas:
    Thanks for this– so much interesting stuff. To begin with: Barack Obama’s favorite TV character is a black gay ‘stick-up’ boy? That’s amazing to me because Obama is the target of so much race and gender and class projection– most of all fetishized is the ‘secret’-ness of his status as a Muslim, queer, or socialist–even his ‘secret’ rage– all channeled and refracted through media–and then he reverses this and redirects it towards another media figure marked by race, class, and gender– Who even has an ‘Arab’ name (Omar) and who is defined by uncanny mobility and lethality… What kind of fantastic mise-en-abysme is this?

    Also, if I remember correctly, Omar is eventually killed by a little boy… reproductive futurism? Or is the boy depicted as a comparably doomed creature in the Darwinian ethos of the gangland?

    Thanks, also, for your other connections, particularly to how the HIV-infected body fits into this. I’m thinking about the Irish hunger strikers of 1981 as juxtaposed with the first reported American PCP and KS cases right around that same time– how are these wasted male visible bodies parallel? What kind of terror do these bodies strike? What kind of anachronism do they represent? Especially within a context of evolutionary degeneration– both the hunger strikers and the first visible American AIDS victims (gay men) are stigmatized, morally and physically degenerate, terroristic, contagious, deplorable, dying, already dead…

  2. adam strauss

    JM, I find the comparison interesting because anything modified by a nation-state title is so easy for me to see as un-“queer”; too, the body as agent strikes me as both different and similar: similar because some would have said that the aids bodies chose that, as the strikers chose starvation as a mode; but also of course different because presumably a striker has a bit more say in the choosing–or do they? Protest, arguably, is by no means a pure genre of agency. Too, it seems that the strikers could be cast as heroic–acting in the name of a just state etc; whereas aids cld be cast as the slough of debauchery–in a way that many wld not cast aids bodies–tho I think a case for aids bodies as heroic bodies is rather uncrazy. On a differrent/related note–I love that Reginald Shephard, in Fata Morgana, looks nostalgicly at the part of his life that may have contributed to killing him.

  3. Lucas de Lima

    I was really fascinated, too, by Obama’s affection for Omar. Of all the politicians and figures of authority on the show, it’s nice that he’d pick the outlaw. But in a sense The Wire gives you no choice but Omar–everyone else is so corrupt or broken by the system.

    The last episode suggests that Michael (of Marlo & co) replaces Omar as Baltimore’s stickup boy. Michael himself had tried to kill Omar before that other kid succeeded. So Omar’s murder by a little boy seems to briefly hold out the possibility of the Child as figure of futurity only to foreclose it. Omar’s killer gets arrested, another kid (Dukie) starts shooting up, the vicious cycle continues.

    In AIDS and its Metaphors, Sontag quotes a former South African foreign minister: “The terrorists are now coming to us with a weapon more terrible than Marxism: AIDS.” So the idea of the obscene political stance, as with suicide bombers and prisoners on a hunger strike, thus also infiltrates the discourse of AIDS. The “body-weapon,” as Puar/Mbembe call it, “carries with it the bodies of others”:

    “Temporal narratives of progression are upturned as death and becoming fuse into one: as one’s body dies, one’s body becomes the mask, the weapon, the suicide bomber, not before. Not only does the ballistic body come into being without the aid of visual cues marking its transformation, it also ‘carries with it the bodies of others.’ Its own penetrative energy sends shards of metal and torn flesh spinning off into the ether. The body-weapon does not play as metaphor, or in the realm of meaning and epistemology, but rather forces us ontologically anew to ask: what kinds of information does the ballistic body impart? These bodies, being in the midst of becoming, blur the insides and the outsides, infecting transformation through sensation, echoing knowledge via reverberation and vibration. The echo is a queer temporality; in the relay of affective information between and amid beings, the sequence of reflection, repetition, resound, and return (but with a difference, mimicry), and brings forth waves of the future breaking into the present.”

    This is from Puar’s excellent “Queer Times, Queer Assemblages.” That quote alone deserves a whole post, doesn’t it!

    L

  4. adam strauss

    “–in a way that many wld not cast aids bodies” after “debauchery” should have been cut by me in the first post; apologies.

  5. Nick Demske

    lucas, you snapped. this post, and the comments that follow it, are really thought provoking. do you know where it was that you learned of the president’s affinity for this character? It makes me feel way more inclined to liking the president.

  6. Lucas de Lima

    Nick, glad you liked this. Omar is a true inspiration. I saw the Obama thing on the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2008/jul/19/television.wire

  7. Nick Demske

    dopeness. and the title of that article is priceless.