Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale aka The Real Avon Barksdale tells His Versions of Baltimore’s Street Life Starring Wood Harris
In the mid-1970s and 1980s, long before fictional drug kingpin Avon Barksdale entered the mind of The Wire’s David Simon, a young man named Nathan Avon “Bodie” Barksdale was honing the dark and violent art of hustling in the Lexington Terrace projects of West Baltimore. In the early 1970s, Kenneth Antonio Jackson, who these days is a Baltimore businessman and strip-club owner, was also making a name for himself in the Latrobe Homes, across town from where Bodie Barksdale grew up. The two men have seen a great deal since then–drug dealing, violence, prison–but these days they make for an amiable, drama-free duo: Jackson, 51, is a smooth, politically connected business-school graduate with impeccable clothes; Barksdale, 48, is a gregarious survivor of numerous attempts on his life.
Now, with Simon’s award-winning HBO series a wrap, Barksdale and Jackson are looking to settle a different kind of score. They have teamed up on the first of what is billed as a series of docudramas called The Baltimore Chronicles: Legends of the Unwired, based on the lives of those who they feel Simon exploited as fodder for his five-season tour de force.
To explain the series and their motivation for doing it, the two men agreed to meet one day in March at Cibo Bar and Grill in Owings Mills. Seated in a booth in a room toward the rear of the restaurant, Jackson and Barksdale and others associated with the project field questions while an entourage–including a lawyer, a camera crew, and a hulking assistant of unspecified profession–looks on.
“The Wire was one long commercial for this,” Barksdale says, raising his low raspy voice an octave or two. “Can I say that?” he asks, drawing laughter from Jackson and director Bruce Brown, producer of the local late-night show Keepin’ It Real and producer/writer Drew Berry, an Emmy Award-winning broadcast news director and media management consultant, formerly the general manager of Channel 2 News in Baltimore.
Scheduled for release this summer, but with distribution and financing still in negotiation, Legends of the Unwired–or, as this group calls it, Unwired–is a project undertaken by real Baltimore figures who want to tell their own stories without the institutional biases they feel Simon, a former newspaper reporter, and his writing partner Ed Burns, a former Baltimore Police detective, indulged in and profited from.
If The Wire was the epitome of art imitating life, Unwired is life coming back on art with somewhat of a chip on its shoulder. “I got motivated by [The Wire] and by knowing some of the characters that was mentioned in the show,” says Jackson, the executive producer, his designer glasses and cautious demeanor lending an air of diplomacy. “Bruce and Drew had access to the professionalism we needed, and I had access to the players, so I brought ’em all together, and we came up with Unwired. I just thought [Simon and Burns] were exploiting a lot of characters in [The Wire]. Even though it’s not factual, it’s based on true events and true characters. We tried to show it the way we saw it.”
“Realism is the main thing with that show,” Barksdale adds. “You’ve got the cops’ version and you’ve got the reporter’s version. Here’s the defendant’s version, and his mother’s version, and his friends’ version.”
Actor Wood Harris, who plays hardened gangster Avon Barksdale on The Wire, appears in the first docudrama of the series, which is based on the life of Nathan Barksdale, whose middle name happens to be Avon, but who answers only to “Bodie.” The digital video, shot in high definition, opens with the off-screen voices of Jackson and Brown discussing the similarities between the real and fictional characters–and the differences that fans of The Wire never see. An ominous gangsta rap rhythm plays behind a montage of Baltimore streets as deep-voiced narrator Troy May of the R&B group the Manhattans details the extreme violence of Bodie’s life, which includes him being shot 21 times–once while he lay in a hospital bed after a failed murder attempt.
Harris interviews Bodie as they walk around the terrace projects featured in The Wire. Dramatized scenes of gangland executions, torture, and revenge are intended to be realistic, though there’s plenty of humanity as well. “There’s more to this story than just drugs and violence,” says Berry, who brings two decades of television news experience to the project.
With the first docudrama in the can, the producers of Unwired are working on three others that each follow the same format: an actor from The Wire interviews a real-life gangster who resembles the fictional character played by that actor; dramatized scenes depict events in the gangster’s life; interviews of family and friends offer the personal side.