Michael K. Williams imbued 'tender spirit' on the set of last movie '892,' director says

·4 min read

What would you do if you were a disabled veteran and Veterans Affairs didn't send you your disability check? The check you needed to avoid losing your housing?

"892," which premiered Friday at Sundance Film Festival, tells the true story of Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega), an Atlanta-based Marine veteran who faced such a predicament. His desperation sends him to a Wells Fargo bank, where he claims he has a bomb and holds two employees hostage. "892" refers to the dollar amount the VA owes him. The film also stars the late Michael K. Williams in his final movie role.

The story is based on Aaron Gell's 2018 article " ‘They didn’t have to kill him’: The death of Lance Corporal Brian Easley," published by military news site Task & Purpose and long-form journalism hub Longreads.

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"$892 seems like a small amount to some people. It's not," director and co-writer Abi Damaris Corbin says. "It can be the difference between your dignity and not. ... It's never worth the price of a man's life."

In Damaris Corbin's feature directorial debut, Williams plays Eli Bernard, a police officer trying to negotiate with Brian. The 54-year-old Emmy Award-nominated actor died of an accidental overdose last September.

Michael K. Williams has his final film role in "892," which is premiering at Sundance Film Festival.
Michael K. Williams has his final film role in "892," which is premiering at Sundance Film Festival.

"He had a tender spirit, the way that he connected with me as a creative was so gentle," Damaris Corbin says of "The Wire" and "Lovecraft Country" star. "The way that he connected with the crew members, he took time for everyone. And this isn't unique to our project. I've heard so many stories since he passed."

Viewers don't know much about Brian when the film begins, though it becomes clear he loves his young daughter and is trying to do his best for her and his ex-wife as he struggles with his mental health and keeping a roof over his head.

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The film flows with a simmering intensity once Brian arrives at the bank and takes hostages Estel Valerie (Nicole Beharie) and Rosa Diaz (Selenis Leyva), and only grows more heightened when he calls a TV station's tip line and reaches employee Lisa Larson (Connie Britton). He commands media attention on top of a heavy police presence.

But once Eli connects with Brian over the phone, the tone shifts suddenly. Eli speaks calmly and rationally to Brian. Like a friend.

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Damaris Corbin reflected on Williams' process and why he made sense for the specific, nuanced role. "His voice was one in the back of my head when we were writing because he's got this honey, mixed with gravel voice," she says.

"We're just so grateful that his voice was the one who ultimately connected because he understood the spirit of what Brian needed," she adds. "Human dignity, he got it."

Brown-Easley's wife felt Boyega captured her husband in his performance, the film's co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah says. "I have a profound belief who was meant to be in the room will be in the room. And it turned out that he was and he's brilliant," he says.

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John Boyega plays desperate and disabled Marine veteran Brian Brown-Easley in "892."
John Boyega plays desperate and disabled Marine veteran Brian Brown-Easley in "892."

"The nuance that he brought: the soul, the spirit, the heart, the artistry, the craft. This is an extremely demanding role of an actor to carry that weight upon your shoulder day in and out," Damaris Corbin says.

Audiences may be split on whether Brian is bluffing about the bomb, but Damaris Corbin hopes people focus less on that question. "We want them to see Brian's heart," she says. "He's a guy here who's looking for his last shreds of human dignity, and it's not something that he should have to fight for. It's a right."

Williams delivers a poignant scene toward the end of the film: Eli places Brian's cross and a pack of cigarettes that he planned to give Brian on his mantle, next to a photo of Eli's own platoon. (Brian is killed before Eli gets the chance.)

"This story is about not just passing your neighbor who's struggling," Damaris Corbin says. "It's looking them in the eye and helping them."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Michael K. Williams' final film '892' premieres at Sundance festival