"Benji" A Top Notch Documentary
ESPN's 30-for030 film "Benji" debuted on Tuesday in the United States and will air Thursday night on TSN in Canada.
The story of Ben Wilson is one that will forever be enshrined in Chicago sports history. It is much more than a sports story, though. "Benji" tells the tale of one of the most gifted young athletes the city has ever known, and the act of violence that would extinguish the promise that his talents exhibited. On November 20, 1984, before the start of his senior season, the 17-year old Simeon high school basketball star was murdered just steps from the school he helped win a state championship.
In "Benji", directors Coodie and Chike present not just a story of unfulfilled promise, but one of the tensions that gang violence can levy upon a neighborhood. Wilson's story begins in the once safe middle-class Chatham neighborhood of Chicago's South Side, which began to become overrun with gangs and drugs in the early 1980s. We learn of Wilson's good upbringing and early signs of athletic ability through interviews with former neighbors such as ESPN's Michael Wilbon, Common, R. Kelly and Juwon Howard. The film is narrated by Wood Harris, aka Avon Barksdale of The Wire fame.
It is through these stories from those who knew Wilson and some excellent archival footage that his elevated basketball prowess is demonstrated. He was "Magic Johnson with a jump shot" and could "handle the ball like Isaiah Thomas". Many viewers who were too young or not alive during Wilson's brief, yet meteoric rise, to the national stage may recall a late 1990s Nike ad that detailed the promise he exemplified and the tragedy that would strike him down.
The TV spot's obvious message aside, it's a poignant reminder of the senseless nature of gang, and most particularly, gun violence. This becomes central to the film's message once Wilson's assailant is interviewed in the latter half. Billy Moore and Omar Dixon were both found guilty on all charges stemming from the 1984 murder. Moore is presented as a man that has been successfully rehabilitated after serving nearly 20 years in prison. He speaks candidly about the incident, expressing his regret and the fear that led him to commit the act.
Moore's description of the events, and the discrepancy between police reports and eyewitness accounts don't exclude Wilson from playing a role in the altercation that led to his life being taken. His murder was clearly a senseless and preventable act, but it's interesting to hear several perspectives of the incident and subsequent trial.
Wilson's murder was the 669th murder in Chicago that year, but it was his local celebrity that served as a catalyst for change in the city and how emergency situations would be handled moving forward. "Benji" portrays Wilson's celebrity in the aftermath of his death without pulling any punches, especially in presenting the polarizing nature of his funeral, which some of his closest friends considered to be an opportunistic showcase for local figures like Rev. Jesse Jackson.
It is this truthful depiction of Wilson's life and death that make "Benji" not just an outstanding entry in the 30-for-30 catalogue, but required viewing for anyone with a semblance of interest in sports and/or the politics of inner city identity. "Benji" is easily the strongest effort among the recent crop of 30-for-30 films, and one of the finer entries in the entire series.