'Benji' Directors Coodie and Chike
Change, for better and for worse
By Will Eidam, 9:01PM, Tue. Oct. 23, 2012
Through some fortuitous coincidences I was able to sit down with the directors of ESPN Filmís Benji, Coodie and Chike Ė creators of Creative Control and directors of Kanye Westís ďThrough the WireĒ Ė as well as PR professional Jay Jay Nesheim of ESPN Films.
We had breakfast for an hour at theWit Chicago discussing the difficulties of getting some interviewees to come on camera, the perceived legacy of Ben Wilson, and most importantly, how they got Avon Barksdale to narrate their film.
Austin Chronicle: How much did you actually know about Benji before you started doing all of your interviews and research?
Coodie: I knew everything. When my sister was in high school she went to Julian. So when [Ben Wilson] would come play Barron Ervin [of Julian] we used to try and sneak in and see them play.
[Coodie was in seventh grade.]
Chike: Iím from New Orleans actually, I actually found out through Coodie when we initially met, and Iím surpsied I hadnít heard about it yet, because I grew up playing basketball as well. I was like, man this is crazy. This story is insane.
[When presenting their idea to tell the Ben Wilson story as a 30 for 30 film, Coodie and Chike were beat to the punch, but they had an advantage.]
Coodie: So when we went in [to ESPN], they said "Seven people came in pitching Ben Wilson. What y'all going to do different? You got footage?Ē Oh yeah, we got footage.
[Coodie and Chike hooked up with Chucki Vision, who had been shooting high school basketball since 1984. A majority of the clips in the film are courtesy of him.]
Coodie: At the present time of that happening, we were watching all of these clips on TV, crying like if you watched a movie. This was life, though, this was someone we were looking up to, knowing he was going to make it.
AC: How did getting Wood Harris (The Wire, Remember the Titans) come along?
Coodie: Well Wood Harris is from Chicago, and we both went to Northern Illinois together. So weíve been friends since then. You know, we were thinking about who would do this. We were thinking Michael Clark Duncan, rest in peace, and we thought about Common, but then we were talking about Wood and Iím like, "Wood, that would be perfect!" So I just called him up.
AC: Whatís the story with Omar Dixon, as far as trying to get an interview?
Chike: We tried hard, but the maximum security prison wouldnít allow it. Either they wouldnít allow it or he just didnít want to do it because he didnít respond to any of our letters.
AC: Omar Dixon is like Randy Wagstaff. He's the sweetest boy, he has nothing to do with the murder. Then of course, he becomes the hardest of all the kids.
Chike: He probably wasn't the sweetest of kids, because he was still probably hardend from the neighborhood .... They probably weren't innocent kids as far as, they were in the circumstance, but they weren't bad kids to make that type of decision.
Coodie: You could look at me and say I was innocent. We was doing the same thing Billy [Moore] and Omar were doing. We were Billy and Omar. Everybody. Even if you werenít in a gang, you were surrounded by gangs. I might as well have been in a gang. There was a lot of fighting. We had guns, but thank god I didnít shoot nobody.
Chike: There was one thing that Billy brought to my attention. Thereís a part at the beginning of the film when Curtis [Benís brother] is like, "Our mother taught us some important things like use your manners." It sounds like something good to say when it relates to your upbringing, but thatís the one thing that Benji didnít say, he did the exact opposite, and thatís what got him killed. Thatís crazy.
Jay Jay: Last night at the Chicago Film Festival, it was our last screening, and at the very end, Billy and several of Benís friends came up for a Q&A. And it was the first time ever that they talked with Billy together. First time they said, ďI forgive you.Ē
AC: Was it relatively easy to get Billy to do the doc?
Chike: It wasnít easy to him to do the doc because he was fearful putting his story out there like that because no oneís ever seen him. All they know of him is this demonized kid, nobodyís put a face to that, but everyoneís got a preconceived notion of him being this devil. He could hide behind that. He can walk the streets easily without people recognizing him. We could have put him out there crazy if we wanted to, but he had to have a certain trust with us to make sure that we would depict him in the right light, favorable enough to where he could be comfortable enough to still have a life.
AC: You can tell he still struggles with what happened that night.
Chike: He donít just hold the weight of killing Benji, he also holds the weight of Omar, an innocent person. You can tell that was one of his main concerns, more than anything, was Omar. You could tell that he still really holds that. He's gonna take that to his grave. Thatís a huge burden.
Coodie: When they got sentenced, when we got the actual court drawings, Omarís head was down. And before we've even seen this, Billy was like, ďMan, I remember when we got sentenced and Omarís head was down. Right at that point, I was like, go ahead and pick your head up. Donít go out like that. Pick your head up. We gotta do what we gotta do.Ē
And then he said how when he turned 18, they took him to the county. And at the county, they tried to make him commit suicide. They told him to write a letter to his mom, that he canít cope and he wouldnít do it. But he had his mom and the preacher and everybody come up to the jail and they was raising hell to see him. And because he wouldnít sign that letter, he said he took a beating, but ďThatís what prepared me for prison.Ē Deep.
AC: There were three interviews you werenít able to get [Mary Wilson, JaTon, and Omar Dixon]. Of those three, which do you wish you were able to get?
Coodie: Of course, you know, his mom passed away [in 2000], we couldnít get her, but that would have been the perfect person. Actually, we was going to tell our story through her, through her book, For the Love of Benji, but we didnít do it.
Chike: Honestly, for JaTon not to do it speaks volumes to me to what really happened. If she did it, maybe she would have muddied it up.
Jay Jay: And she could have come off either way based on two things: On what she said and how she said it. No one can blame a teenage girl who has a 10-week-old child for being afraid that her boyfriendís murderer is going to walk. If those cops were saying, "These guys are going to walk if you just say they just bumped into each other then went at it, thereís no way these guys are going to go to jail for this and so you have to say it was robbery," then no would blame her.
Coodie: Coach Hambrick said that him and Coach Hambrick would always meet every day for lunch. And that was the only time that he didnít meet Coach Hambrick at lunch.
Jay Jay: They were fighting about whatever they were fighting about.
Coodie: Right, so he felt the need to walk her.
Jay Jay: Thereís no way that she doesnít know that sheís the reason he was on the street that day and the reason he was mad enough.
Chike: But one thing though, we just donít know. We donít know because we didnít get to talk to her, so we just donít know. We just know that she didnít want to be a part of this film.
AC: What did you think [Ben Wilsonís] legacy was before this documentary and what do you think itís going to be? For Billy, too.
Chike: Before the legacy dealt with strictly basketball, as far as Chicago and Simeon, and him being a foundation of that great institution and how well theyíve done through sports. Now I think the legacy transcends far past basketball and past Chicago, and now it deals with community and it deals with saving people's lives. And thatís major, and on both sides; on Billyís side and Benís side and itís crazy because their legacies kind of come together to do work in a positive manner. What youíd consider enemies because of the situation, itís now like an allied force thatís going to make positive change.
Coodie: And I think too, that the legacy now is that itís actually humanized Ben Wilson who was like this mythical character or superhero that we looked up to that couldnít do no wrong. It humanized him. Thatís going to make a big difference now that they see he wasnít a perfect kid, which no kid is perfect. Itís going to resonate with the athletes when they snap out on somebody thinking they more powerful because of their ability.
And Billy, just by his story, is going to ring true to Chicago and save some lives based on the fact that Ö that one decision Billy made to pull that trigger changed his life and he wished so bad that the bullet went right back in the barrel and he could just put it back in his thing. Right after he did it thereís not turning back. Your life is destroyed. Your familyís life is destroyed. The person you shot and killed and his familyís life is destroyed. In fact a whole city was destroyed and we lost a lot of hope because of that. That one little decision changed his life and heís still living with it.
What should be taught, what you need to get out of this movie is think before you act. And also set a goal, and if you set a goal and work hard you will achieve it. You know what I mean? And those are two big things. Ben Wilson set a goal, he worked hard and he achieved his goal which was to be number one in the nation. He passed away right after, but also he wanted to make change .... He used to look up to Martin Luther King and he was like, "Man I'm gonna make change like Martin Luther King did." And actually, through his death, he made change. If it wasn't for him, it would still be at the 700, 800 deaths, because kids still gettin' shot, but now ambulances have to take them to a trauma center. So that change saved lives.
Chike: He becomes a martyr now. Maybe this was suppose to happen. Some people die to save other people's lives. It was like he was that martyr. It cost one life to save who knows how many more lives.
Click here for our review of Benji.