We had gone to Maryland to shoot a martial arts video with someone you might have heard of; he was an actor on the show WMAC Masters and had once been featured on an A&E program about former felons who had gotten their lives back on track. His name is Willie “Bam” Johnson. I had worked with him on a self-defense project ten years earlier and found him to be a very strong, fit, and decent man. So when it came time for us to shoot another video, I jumped at the chance.
On the morning of the first day of shooting, we drove into downtown Baltimore to film an interview with him and a pastor who had helped him turn his life around. At the time, on-location shoots were done with a crew of two: me as the director/producer/sound engineer/lighting expert/1st camera/location scout, and another man who helped. As we were packing up the equipment after the interview, Johnson said that there was one more interview he wanted to do, and asked us to follow him in our car. I asked where we were going, and he grinned and said he didn’t want to tell us, but it would be worth our time.
Soon we found ourselves driving through an extremely bad part of Baltimore. My alma mater is Temple University, so I know what bad neighborhoods look like. This was about as bad as it got. We were driving a black Suburban; our heavy shooting schedule had permitted us a free upgrade from the minivans we usually rented. As comfortable as it was to drive, it attracted attention, though not as much as Johnson’s Hummer.
We eventually pulled up at a large building suspiciously free of graffiti, and spent the next several minutes hauling camera bags and Pelican cases from the SUV to the building’s entrance. A smiling man in white greeted us with handshakes, and we went inside the darkened building to the back. It was then that we were introduced to Little Melvin.
Melvin Williams, AKA Little Melvin, was the real-life inspiration behind the Avon Barksdale character in HBO’s show The Wire. He was tall, with muddy brown eyes that had something very sharp going on behind them. I’m not trying to be literary or melodramatic: you took a look at him and knew that despite his mild demeanor, he took in everything. At the time, I hadn’t watched The Wire, so I wasn’t at all starstruck. I was just there to do a job.
Johnson conducted the interview and talked about Little Melvin’s interest in martial arts and how it helped him in his career. It didn’t take terribly long, and we were soon packing up to go to the next location: Johnson’s dojo.
As we packed up, I chatted a bit with Little Melvin and his friend, a man whose name I’ve forgotten but struck me as a nice, personable fellow with a sense of humor. They kidded us about how we stuck out in the neighborhood a bit. Little Melvin told us a few stories about how he had been railroaded into prison, and how just the rumor of him being angry about his portrayal in the film Liberty Heights had scared director Barry Levinson into almost canceling the movie’s release (Orlando Jones played Little Melvin in the film).
My colleague got a picture with Little Melvin and his friend while I finished packing up.
On the way back to the dojo, we turned on the radio. It’s very likely that we were the only people in that part of Baltimore listening to Jimmy Buffett. To this day, I don’t know if the video was ever released.