After his iconic role as Omar Little on The Wire, a character loosely based on a real-life Baltimore stickup man, Michael K. Williams may be playing another folk hero criminal who has had a huge influence on hip-hop and on popular culture in general.
According to an exclusive report on The Wrap yesterday, Williams is in negotiations to play the role of real life drug kingpin “Freeway” Rick Ross, not to be confused with the rapper Rick Ross who uses the name as a sort of homage, in the film Kill the Messenger, the story of the journalist Gary Webb who will be played by Jeremy Renner. (“Freeway” Rick Ross tried and failed to sue the rapper for trademark infringement in 2010.)
Gary Webb was a real-life journalist who in the mid-to-late 1990s in a series of articles for the San Jose Mercury News collectively titled “The Dark Alliance” detailed the story of how in the 1980s the CIA helped fund right wing death squads in Nicaragua, known as the Contras, in part through helping gangs connected to the Contras to distribute and sell large amounts of cocaine in California. Investigative reporters in the late 1980s had already uncovered much of the story, but Webb’s work filled in a lot of the details and tied the entire saga to a gripping central narrative.
Instead of congratulating Webb for his huge scoop and investigating the story further, the media establishment of the time banded together to discredit Webb’s reporting and to smear him personally. This led to Webb not being able to get any job in journalism and eventually to his death in 2004 at the age of 49, either from suicide or from foul play depending on how conspiratorially minded you are.
The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post all ran long page one stories seeking to discredit the “Dark Alliance” stories, but in retrospect most journalists now agree that these response stories only managed to uncover minor problems and didn’t discredit Webb’s central thesis. The whole sad saga is back in the news again as many of the journalists who led these attacks have publicly apologized recently, perhaps in preparation for the release of Kill the Messenger, which is set to begin filming in Atlanta soon.
One of the central aspects of Webb’s reporting which reporters at the LA Times were particularly keen to discredit was the extent and power of Los Angeles based drug kingpin Rick Ross over the United States crack trade. As many have pointed out since, this was particularly strange as this seemed to contradict the LA Times own reporting on the subject just a couple years prior.
Ross was a major figure both in the original Dark Alliance series and in the non-fiction book Kill the Messenger by Nick Shou, on which the movie will be based. He was in prison from 1996 to 2009 but since then has been also been working on telling the CIA/Contras/Cocaine story on film. After the item was posted on The Wrap yesterday Ross sent them a statement making clear that he has no involvement with Kill the Messenger and is working on another film, as yet untitled, telling his life story, to be scripted by Nick Cassavetes. In addition Ross says he’s working on a documentary, directed by Marc Levin of Brick City, tentatively titled A Crack in the System, which is nearly finished.
Williams is said to be eager to play Ross, but it may be difficult to work out the scheduling as Boardwalk Empire, where Williams has an ongoing role as Chalky White, goes back into production this summer as wall.
In another interesting detail, Kill the Messenger will be written and executive produced by former New York Times reporter Peter Landesman, who himself was the center of a (comparatively minor) journalistic scandal when a piece he wrote for the New York Times Magazine entitled “The Girls Next Door” about an epidemic of women being held as sex slaves was accused of being exaggerated if not partially fictitious.