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Last Word

Nathan "Bodie" Barksdale and Kenny Jackson tell their versions of Baltimore's street life in The Baltimore Chronicles: Legends of the Unwired

Kenny Jackson (left) and Nathan "Bodie" Barksdale.
Jeffrey Anderson (left) talks with (seated, from left) Kenny Jackson, Nathan Barksdale, and Bruce Brown at Cibo Bar and Grill.

By Jeffrey Anderson | Posted 4/29/2009

Watch a clip from Legends of the UnWired

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According to Brown and Berry, the project is targeting cable and DVD markets, though they declined to specify what arrangements are in place. They also declined to identify the subjects of the next three docudramas in the series.

To Jackson and Barksdale, the project is about more than commerce--though that's certainly part of it. "With The Wire, the way they show it, the way I feel about that is they made money off my story, off my trouble, off my pain," says Barksdale, an amputee who walks with a cane. Neither he nor Jackson were consulted or involved with The Wire. Jackson, who is vague on the subject of how he came to know Bodie back in the day, says he wanted nothing to do with Simon's HBO show. Barksdale, who was incarcerated when The Wire first broke, later had a bit part, but says he wasn't satisfied with the standard day rate he was paid.

"I wouldn't call it a good working relationship with those guys, because I didn't get enough paper," Barksdale says. "But I ain't shootin' at them either, you know what I mean?"

Barksdale's life has been so violent that a dark sense of humor is second nature to him. Raised in the Lexington Terrace projects on the 700 block of Mulberry Street in the 1970s and '80s, Barksdale saw the drug game as a necessity from an early age. "It was what you did to keep from being hungry," he says. "You lived in the projects, opportunities came, and you took 'em."

Did you use drugs? "Yeah, I used 'em to pay the rent," Barksdale jokes, then, turning serious, he recalls a traumatic childhood experience that is dramatized in Unwired. "I was a bad kid, and I stole from a guy, stole his lunch as a matter of fact. He was a blue-collar guy, and he backed his truck up over my leg. I got my leg crushed and became an amputee. So it was during my pain-management program that I got introduced to opiates."

Barksdale says he resisted the drugs at first, because they made him sleepy. Plus, he says, he was a fighter who aspired to the boxing ring, and the drugs made him slow. But he says psychiatrists have diagnosed his violent tendencies to be related to persistent pain from a variety of near-fatal encounters. "When I started medicating I didn't do violence," he recalls. "By then I had made a bunch of money."

Simon's own reporting for The Baltimore Sun in the 1980s tells a less sympathetic story for Barksdale, one that closely resembles aspects of The Wire. In 1987, Simon's five-part series titled "Easy Money: Anatomy of a Drug Empire" examined the dealings of convicted heroin kingpin Melvin Williams, one of Baltimore's most notorious crime figures. In his reportage, Simon identified Bodie Barksdale as a ruthless young killer and drug addict who controlled drug distribution in the high-rise projects in the early 1980s, and who once tortured three people in an 11th-floor apartment of the George B. Murphy Homes. Barksdale says that he never tortured anyone and that Simon's image of him was overblown. "He was trying to get me jammed up," says Barksdale, referring to Simon's series of newspaper articles. "He was tryin' to get me life."

Simon the crime reporter also identified two rivals to Barksdale as Marlow Bates and Timmirror Stanfield. In The Wire, Simon the cable-show creator developed a significant plot line involving a young up and comer named Marlo Stanfield, who wages war with Avon Barksdale's crew for control of the west-side heroin trade. Bodie Barksdale takes exception to both the real and fictional depiction of his relationship with Bates and Stanfield, who appear to form the basis for the composite character Marlo Stanfield. "Marlow Bates is one of my closest friends," Barksdale says. "His family and mine are intertwined."

Barksdale has other issues with Simon and his writing partner Ed Burns, mostly in the way The Wire depicts the Baltimore Police Department. One scene in Unwired shows Barksdale describing police he knew as stick-up men, extortionists, and hit men. The Wire, he contends, treads too lightly on the police by avoiding any suggestion that they engaged in criminal activity--an unfortunate but documented fact of life in many cities, Baltimore included. "You gotta look who wrote it," Barksdale says of The Wire. "One guy who wrote it is a cop."

Barksdale's criminal bona fides cannot be disputed. Though many of his numerous criminal charges occurred when he was a juvenile, Barksdale's most notable conviction, according to The Sun series, occurred in 1985, when he was sentenced to 15 years in state prison for battery in connection with the torture incident. More recently, in 2003, he was acquitted in federal court of being a felon with a gun. But his appearance in Unwired suggests there's more to his story that cannot be told. "There's no statute of limitations on murder," he says to Harris, cutting off talk of his past.

To round out the portrait of Barksdale, Unwired features interviews with his mother, Emma Barksdale Grier, who describes her struggle to raise five boys in the projects. There are other moments that seek to add dimension to Barksdale's life. As with the Avon Barksdale character in The Wire, boxing runs deep in the real Barksdale family; ex-heavyweight contender Larry Middleton makes an appearance in Unwired and sizes up Bodie's boxing ability as a youngster.

Today, Barksdale says he tries to mentor young people, using his street credibility to open the door to their minds. "I try to keep some of them from traveling the same path I've traveled," he says, noting that he works informally with his nephew, Dante Barksdale, of Operation Safe Streets, to head off retaliatory violence in the streets.

"When I show up, it keeps some stuff from happening," he says. Barksdale also says he looks up to black business icon Reginald Lewis, and would like to see more business development in the black community. Yet he offers few details, aside from his family's interest in a West Baltimore apartment building, to illustrate his own role as a businessman.

Development of Unwired began last July, says Brown, who also makes a cameo as the judge who sentenced Barksdale to 15 years. Like Berry, who brings a newsman's eye to the docudrama, Brown was hired for his television experience. He is quick to defend the project's attention to detail. "This was not off the cuff," he says. The producers "reviewed newspaper articles and court documents. They did interviews with different characters in Bodie's life. It wasn't all gangster stuff. We show the good and the bad. Either you're gonna love him or you're gonna hate him."

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Tags: shadow economy, the wire

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