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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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One obvious intersection between Jackson's real life and The Wire is impossible to overlook, Jackson concedes. And one character in particular could be perceived as resembling aspects of his life, he says, noting a distinction not depicted in the HBO show.

In 2000, after a news story broke in The Sun, then-City Council President Sheila Dixon was criticized for supporting a city purchase of property where the Jackson family strip club once was located, on Baltimore Street. Jackson was a political contributor to Dixon, among other politicians. In season five of The Wire, which involves a fictional Baltimore Sun newsroom as a vehicle for Simon's take on the demise of modern journalism, a similar event occurs. The scene depicts an editor referring to the strip-club proprietor in question, a man nicknamed Fat Face Rick, as a "drug dealer." The scene further shows the fictional council president slamming her hand on her car steering wheel as she reads the story in the paper.

"I wasn't consulted on that," Jackson says. "I don't think that they should have did it. I didn't think that situation should have been put in The Wire. But they did it. So this is our way of being able to do exactly what they did. Today, you got the internet, videos, DVDs. You can get your side of the story out any time."

Jackson says that fans of The Wire are the target audience for Unwired, "and probably some additional people that are interested in my story and [Bodie's] story, and Baltimore."

Though none of Kenny Jackson's actual biography is in Unwired, given David Simon's journalistic fascination with Bodie Barksdale and other figures who resemble characters in The Wire, fans of the show might wonder if Jackson is the inspiration for a particular character (aside from the Fat Face Rick vignette, obviously plucked from the headlines).

Jackson doesn't deny the possibility. He acknowledges that his business acumen and his recent business degree from AIU lead to comparisons between him and fictional character Stringer Bell, the financially and politically enterprising partner of Avon Barksdale. In fact, season three of The Wire even shows the drug kingpin Bell taking business classes at a local community college while Det. Jimmy McNulty spies on him. Jackson recalls that police made their presence known to him years ago when he was taking classes at Baltimore City Community College.

But a key distinction between him and Bell exists. "In my life, I can see a transition from one lifestyle to another," Jackson says. "But that doesn't sell." (In Unwired, Bodie Barksdale talks of another man who he thinks is the real life version of Stringer Bell, and claims he was not a friend at all. Barksdale does acknowledge, however, that there is a little Kenny Jackson in Stringer Bell after all.)

Reached via e-mail while on location in Europe, David Simon rejects any notion that Bodie Barksdale or Kenny Jackson or anyone for that matter is a model for any character in The Wire. "It seems that Mr. Jackson and Mr. Barksdale feel it was our obligation to tell an empirical truth about the history of the drug trade in Baltimore, or at least their version of that truth and further, to consult them about their version of that truth," Simon writes. "Given that The Wire is fictional, we are at a loss to respond intelligently. Specifically, Nathan Barksdale and Kenny Jackson do not exist in the world of The Wire. And indeed, if we are writing fiction, aren't we trying at points to avoid empirical truth entirely?"

Jackson only half buys it. "How does he explain real life characters, names, events, and locations inside a fictional story?" Jackson says of Simon, conceding that the resemblance between fictional characters and real life figures boils down in some instances to as many as four real people serving as the basis for one composite character. In the case of former Baltimore homicide detective Oscar "Bunk" Requere, the resemblance to The Wire's "Bunk" Moreland seems more direct: both are heavyset, well-dressed detectives who like cigars and fine scotch. "It was brilliant," Jackson says, offering Simon a tip of the hat. "He was so crafty the way he did it. He was able to move all the characters around and tell one story."

Of course, Jackson also sees signs of Simon's storytelling brilliance in his news reporting from two decades ago. He just doesn't agree with much of it. Listening to a passage read to him from a 1987 story in The Baltimore Sun, in which Simon describes a friend of Jackson's as a longstanding member of the "west-side narcotics fraternity," Jackson laughs and says, "He does have a way with words, doesn't he?"

Arts Editor Bret McCabe notes: Approximately one week following the publication of "Last Word," the April 29 feature story about Nathan "Bodie" Barksdale and Kenny Jackson's docudrama project, The Baltimore Chronicles: Legends of the Unwired, former Sun reporter/The Wire creator David Simon contacted City Paper to contest one aspect of the story. In the first paragraph, Barksdale is introduced as "Nathan Avon 'Bodie' Barksdale"--how he and his mother refer to him in the Unwired footage.

Simon consulted his own reporting files on Barksdale, and discovered that in all his police documents, arrest records, and court papers Barksdale is referred to only as "Nathan Barksdale"; in some cases the documents even include the abbreviation "NMN"--"no middle name."

He's correct: In none of the court and legal documents City Paper used in the fact-checking of this article does "Avon" appear as Barksdale's middle name. Furthermore, as the assigning story editor, I never challenged the name that Barksdale used in Unwired.

The inconsistency matters: Since the publication of the City Paper story, Barksdale appeared on the cover of a summer issue of Don Diva magazine (issue 38) as "Nathan Avon Barksdale," Unwired was named "Best Docudrama" at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival program in Los Angles in July, and it was picked up for a March 2010 DVD release re-titled The Avon Barksdale Story: Legends of the Unwired.

City Paper got back in touch with Barksdale through his lawyer to request verification of his middle name, documentation which we have permitted them more than ample time to produce and which has yet to materialize.

As such, City Paper is unable to verify that Barksdale's legal given middle name is "Avon."

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Tags: shadow economy, the wire

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