Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Tragically Familiar: Benji
If Benji feels like a tour of familiar territory for ESPN Films' "30 for 30" franchise, there's a reason. Chronicling the short life and premature death of 1980s Chicago basketball prospect Ben Wilson, this documentary by Coodie (Simmons) and Chike (Ozah) is yet another tale of unrealized potential and dreams unfulfilled — a theme covered in basketball flicks Without Bias (on Len Bias) and Guru of Go (which while ostensibly about Paul Westhead is memorable for its inclusion of Hank Gathers), plus The Best There Never Was (on football player Marcus Dupree) and, to a lesser extent, Tim Richmond: To the Limit. Benji also fits right in with the "What if I told you ...?" theme of the "30 for 30" marketing campaign, bringing to light a sports story that's unforgettable for those who experienced it and yet all too easy for the rest of us to overlook (Into the Wind might be my favorite example of that subgenre, but you could argue that at least a quarter of the "30 for 30" series is in that vein). But if Benji doesn't do much to stand out, we shouldn't think less of it for fitting in. Last week's release, There's No Place Like Home, was, in its utter disastrousness, a reminder of this series' routine excellence. And at least from journalistic perspective, it's far less important for Benji to stand out amongst its peers than for the documentary to prove that Ben Wilson stood out amongst his.
Coodie and Chike make that case convincingly. As you'd expect, Benji is filled with the poetic remembrances from nationally recognized experts on Chicago basketball (including Scoop Jackson and Mike Wilbon), from local journalists who covered Wilson's prep years, from NBA players who played with him, against him or in the shadow of his legacy and from family, friends and childhood teammates (including R. Kelly). But in addition to those nostalgic testimonials, Benji has something else that we take for granted in this era of YouTube and the smartphone camera: video evidence. For a documentary about a kid who only played three years of high school basketball in the early 1980s, that was no sure thing. Thankfully, many of Wilson's state tournament games were televised, but Coodie and Chike don't stop there. They supplement the television coverage with footage of Wilson playing at a prospect camp, and with era-appropriate video of blacktop basketball games in Chicago's hoops-obsessed playgrounds. Wilson doesn't actually appear in the playground video (I don't think), but that's irrelevant: the footage makes it clear that to be a standout high school basketball player in Chicago, you needed to have serious game, and all the basketball footage of Wilson — save for his subpar, foul-plagued title game performance as a junior — allows us to see that with our own eyes. Indeed, as the talking-heads suggest, Wilson had low-post size with a guard's ball-handling ability; a soft jump shot; a knack for rebounding; and, in every move he made, unusual grace.
That's not to suggest that Benji doesn't have its share of myth-based hyperbole. Heck, some interviews are shot in a pool hall, an environment perfect for turning kernels of truth into tall tales. But while Wilson's basketball skills are virtually undeniable, Coodie and Chike caution the viewer not to swallow the legend whole, particularly when it comes to Wilson's death. (Spoiler warning.) Gunned down less than a block away from his high school on the eve of his senior season, Wilson was reported to be the victim of a curbside stickup — an account seemingly confirmed by the signed confessions of the two suspects. But Benji raises the possibility, and if you ask me convincingly suggests, that in truth the 6-foot-8 Wilson was shot because he bumped, taunted and then lunged toward a much shorter kid, Billy Moore, who had flashed his weapon and was prepared to use it. This alternate scenario is articulated by Moore himself, telling his story on camera for the first time, almost three decades later, and it's at least loosely corroborated by other circumstantial evidence brought to life in the documentary, which includes an animated reenactment of a previous incident in which Wilson demonstrated a potential for aggression when he hit a teacher who was trying to intervene in a confrontation Wilson was having with his girlfriend, Jetun Rush, with whom Wilson was quarreling moments before he was shot. There's no confusion over who fired the weapon or denial of the most serious crime. Moore admits to both, and says that his so-called accomplice, Omar Dixon, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Benji stands as a reminder that first impressions can be deceiving.
Still, there probably will always be an element of mystery to Wilson's death. Rush, who might be the most impartial witness to the event, refused to be interviewed for the documentary, as did Dixon. But the particulars of the incident don't matter much, especially in the context of this film. What counts is that gun violence, exacerbated in this case by some problematic emergency protocol that has since been reformed (ensuring that gunshot victims are taken to the nearest functioning trauma center, and not just to the nearest hospital), robbed us of an athlete who seemed destined for greatness far beyond Chicago. That's compelling in itself; perhaps Wilson was on his way to being the rival that Michael Jordan never quite had. But if you allow yourself to see Benji as something other than a sports documentary, it's hard not to notice that the gunman and his guilty-of-being-there accomplice had their lives significantly altered, too. They are not, of course, equal victims. Not even close. And it's possible that if it wasn't Ben Wilson on that sidewalk that day, it would have been some other Chicago kid on some other sidewalk on some other day. Maybe violence was in Moore's future. But watching Moore speak, and seeing what he's become, it's tempting to wonder if his future might have been brighter, too, if only he could have escaped Chicago. That you've heard this story before, with different characters, doesn't make it any less tragic.
Benji premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler hopes to review each new film in the "30 for 30" series upon its release.
See the Volume 1 and Volume 2 archive.