The Avon Barksdale Story — Legends of the Unwired

January 01, 1970

(E1 Entertainment)




HBO’s The Wire might be
the bleakest TV crime series ever, not only because it was shot on location in
some of the grimiest parts of Baltimore,
but also because some of the key characters (like Felicia Pearson’s murderous
Snoop) were straight out of those hoods, too. But get one look at the real
Nathan “Avon” Barksdale – the heroin kingpin who inspired a character
with a similar name on the show – and it’s obvious that reality was a whole
other level of shit.


The Avon
Barksdale Story – Legends of the Unwired
features a series of interviews with
Barksdale, who has piercing eyes, corn rows, a boxer’s frame and a demeanor
that suggests he’s tired of that old life yet still somewhat amused and/or
proud of how he ran a multimillion-dollar operation. He’s a stark contrast to
interviewer Wood Harris, the trim actor who played the Barksdale character on
HBO with a certain amount of savoir faire. (In a nice pun, here Harris sports a
Black Sabbath Master Of Reality shirt
under a gray cardigan.) Barksdale, who has served his prison time, is all about
the facts. He’s hardly verbose, but his stories – told with a Baltimore twang – describe a life packed with
violence, in many cases received rather than perpetrated: The litany starts
with a leg crushed during boyhood and eventually comes around to a bullet
through the mouth and out the back of his head.


His mother, Emma Barksdale Grier, gets a lot of screen time, too.
She’s sharp and no-nonsense, and she makes no excuses for her son: She wanted
the best for him, but as a single mom working multiple jobs, she often had no
choice but to let her kids rear themselves. “Y’know, boys don’t come to
their mothers with stuff like that,” she says when discussing the time
when a local crime lord punished the young Barksdale by locking him in a
basement with vicious dogs. She understands the interest in her offspring, but
it’s implied that she’s washed her hands of him.


Mother and son don’t appear onscreen together, but they’re both
engrossing as subjects, as are the handful of other interviewees: the real
“Bunk” from the Baltimore police department; a couple of the boxers
who knew Barksdale; some of the kingpin’s street contemporaries; and so on. The
problem, however, is that there isn’t enough of them. The interviews aren’t
totally penetrating, and all of the central action dates to the ’80s and ’90s,
meaning that the film is almost entirely a reconstruction job. So with voids to
fill – and very little TV-news footage of vintage Barksdale – the filmmakers
try to flesh out the talk with re-enactments of assassinations, beefs,
takedowns and shootouts. It’s not HBO-quality stuff (for starters, there isn’t
much of an attempt to make the vignettes look period-specific) but it’s not
totally embarrassing, either. At its best, it’s Wire-lite. At its worst, the fake blood is obvious.


The glue for all those pieces is narration by Troy
May of the R&B group The Manhattans, and although May does his best to give
the film a sly, knowing tone, he’s no master of the form. His job, ultimately,
is to remind the viewer that Wire creator David Simon and writing partner Ed Burns took Barksdale’s story and
shuffled the pieces around to suit television. Barksdale, of course, goes a
step farther, saying that the cops were far more crooked than the HBO series
ever showed. It doesn’t matter whether he’s right; what matters is that he’s
onscreen, flashing those eyes and letting us get a close look at him. It
could’ve been closer, it could’ve been better, but the point of The Avon Barksdale Story seems to be
that gangsters can hire cameras, too.


(The film’s producers say another Unwired installment about rival
dealer Marlow Bates — part of the inspiration for The Wire‘s Marlo Stanfield – is in the works. Read more about the
film at the Baltimore City Paper.)


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