One of the last movies that Michael K. Williams ever acted in, Breaking, comes out in theaters today from director Abi Damaris Corbin. She remembers Williams fondly: “His voice is honey meets gravel,” she told MovieMaker. “It’s a soothing voice that you can hear the history in.”
Williams’ voice is at the heart of Breaking, which tells the true story of Brian Brown-Easley, a former Marine who held up an Atlanta bank with hostages in 2017 — not to rob it, but to get the attention of Veterans Affairs in regards to his missing disability check, which had gotten lost in the VA’s bureaucratic shuffle. It’s a story about the way America treats those who serve — especially those of color.
Inspired by the 2018 Task & Purpose story They Didn’t Have to Kill Him, John Boyega stars in Breaking as Easley, and Williams stars opposite him as Eli Bernard, a character based on lead crisis negotiator Sgt. Andre Bates, a fellow Marine who communicated over the phone with Easley that day and negotiated the release of Easley’s hostages, two women who worked at the bank played by Selenis Leyva and Nicole Beharie.
Corbin co-wrote the script with actor-writer-producer-director Kwame Kwei-Armah. But it was actually John Boyega who convinced the late Wire star Michael K. Williams, who died in Sept. 2021 at the age of 54, to join the cast of Breaking.
“I knew as a director that for the character [of Eli] I had to have someone who could pierce through a phone line to connect with Brian. So you have to have someone who, over a voice, you can hear their empathy. You can hear their compassion,” she said. “Mike’s voice is honey meets gravel. It’s this soothing voice that you can hear the history in. And when we logged on, he had read the story, he’d already decided, Wow, I hadn’t heard about Brian, I want to tell this… He wanted to work with John — he called him the young Boyega,” she laughed.
“I think John had already done the begging for me before that meeting, so I didn’t have to do too much. Mike had already decided he wanted to work with me. And he told me, he’s like, ‘Look, I have your back.’ And he did every single day. It was incredible. I love that man.”
Formerly titled 892 after the dollar amount of money the VA owed — and still owes, as the film notes — the Easley family, Breaking also stars London Covington plays Easley’s daughter, Kiah, and Olivia Washington plays Easley’s wife, Cassandra. Connie Britton plays the local news reporter who listens as Easley, still inside the bank, tells her the heart-wrenching story of how he went from a Lance Corporal in the Marines to a disabled veteran on the brink of homelessness, left on hold with the VA and turned away from its offices when he was just looking for help.
It’s a story Corbin knows well — she waited in those same lines with her father.
“My dad is a Navy veteran. So when I read Brian’s story, so much of Brian’s struggle with the VA just came flooding back. I really understood a lot of his lines that he waited in, because I waited in those with my dad. Those phone calls that didn’t go through for him — I know those calls, the emergency lines that you can’t get through. We’ve been on those,” Corbin said. “My dad got Agent Orange in the Navy, so he’s gone from being an athlete, this guy who is full of personality, who loves to just reenact stories and tell them, to essentially being in a wheelchair and just having a really hard time moving around.”
“When I read Brian’s story, I understood that rage that caused him to walk into the bank, that righteous rage, the power that pushed him to beyond his breaking point,” she added. “For a man that kind, that intellectual, to come to a point of combustion — it takes a lot.”
Breaking is now playing in theaters.
Main Image: Michael K. Williams in Breaking courtesy of Bleecker Street.