'Benji' Directors Coodie and Chike
Through some fortuitous coincidences I was able to sit down with the directors of ESPN Film’s Benji, Coodie and Chike – creators of Creative Control and directors of Kanye West’s “Through the Wire” – 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: I’m from New Orleans actually, I actually found out through Coodie when we initially met, and I’m surpsied I hadn’t 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?” 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 we’ve 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 I’m like, "Wood, that would be perfect!" So I just called him up.
AC: What’s the story with Omar Dixon, as far as trying to get an interview?
Chike: We tried hard, but the maximum security prison wouldn’t allow it. Either they wouldn’t allow it or he just didn’t want to do it because he didn’t 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 weren’t 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 didn’t shoot nobody.
Chike: There was one thing that Billy brought to my attention. There’s a part at the beginning of the film when Curtis [Ben’s 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 that’s the one thing that Benji didn’t say, he did the exact opposite, and that’s what got him killed. That’s crazy.
Jay Jay: Last night at the Chicago Film Festival, it was our last screening, and at the very end, Billy and several of Ben’s friends came up for a Q&A. And it was the first time ever that they talked with Billy together. First time they said, “I forgive you.”
AC: Was it relatively easy to get Billy to do the doc?
Chike: It wasn’t easy to him to do the doc because he was fearful putting his story out there like that because no one’s ever seen him. All they know of him is this demonized kid, nobody’s put a face to that, but everyone’s 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 don’t 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. That’s a huge burden.
Coodie: When they got sentenced, when we got the actual court drawings, Omar’s head was down. And before we've even seen this, Billy was like, “Man, I remember when we got sentenced and Omar’s head was down. Right at that point, I was like, go ahead and pick your head up. Don’t go out like that. Pick your head up. We gotta do what we gotta do.”
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 can’t cope and he wouldn’t 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 wouldn’t sign that letter, he said he took a beating, but “That’s what prepared me for prison.” Deep.
AC: There were three interviews you weren’t 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 boyfriend’s 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, there’s 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 didn’t 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: There’s no way that she doesn’t know that she’s the reason he was on the street that day and the reason he was mad enough.
Chike: But one thing though, we just don’t know. We don’t know because we didn’t get to talk to her, so we just don’t know. We just know that she didn’t want to be a part of this film.
AC: What did you think [Ben Wilson’s] legacy was before this documentary and what do you think it’s 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 they’ve 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 that’s major, and on both sides; on Billy’s side and Ben’s side and it’s crazy because their legacies kind of come together to do work in a positive manner. What you’d consider enemies because of the situation, it’s now like an allied force that’s going to make positive change.
Coodie: And I think too, that the legacy now is that it’s actually humanized Ben Wilson who was like this mythical character or superhero that we looked up to that couldn’t do no wrong. It humanized him. That’s going to make a big difference now that they see he wasn’t a perfect kid, which no kid is perfect. It’s 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 … 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 there’s not turning back. Your life is destroyed. Your family’s life is destroyed. The person you shot and killed and his family’s 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 he’s 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.