[19 February 2009]
As a sheltered, TV-obsessed pre-teen in the late ‘70s, I was always eager to watch the “ABC Afterschool Special”, an ongoing series of issue-oriented films that explored topics deemed “sensitive”: race relations, reproduction – who could forget “My Mom’s Having A Baby”? – bullying, whatever. These specials, only aired intermittently, drew significant audiences, and were later duplicated in the Tiffany Network’s “CBS Schoolbreak Special”.
I’ve not seen any of these in a dog’s age, but I was reminded of them while watching Ralph Nelson’s A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich. This 1978 release, based on the celebrated Young Adult novel from Alice Childress, is an earnest, sometimes ploddingly so, examination of ghetto life in now-notorious South Central Los Angeles, as seen through the emotional prism of one 13-year-old boy, Benjie, and his struggling family.
A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwichopens with a shot of downtown LA, looking quite distant, and that may be the point. Benjie Johnson’s – played by then-newcomer Larry B. Scott – precarious existence is as far from the gleaming towers of corporate Los Angeles as Auntie Em’s hardscrabble farm was from the Emerald City. Fittingly, the film’s texture seems smoggy—recognizably LA to any long-time resident. It’s summertime in the City of the Angels, and the livin’ ain’t easy. Nelson’s shots are appropriately gritty, a landscape devoid of central air conditioning, luxury rides, or Blue Heaven swimming pools.
Larry B. Scott is best known as the unimaginatively stereotypical Lamar Latrelle in the silly ‘80s cult fave, Revenge of the Nerds, but A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwichwas his debut as a taciturn, fatherless boy, edging into adolescence, and hangin’ with some fellas already deep into hot water. Indeed one of them robs and beats Benjie’s grandmother(the august Helen Martin), which, inexplicably, is never revealed to Benjie—one of several missteps the achingly sincere script takes.
Among Benjie’s buds are Carwell – played by Erin Blunt, delightfully memorable as the militant sandlot slugger Ahmad Abdul Rahim in The Bad News Bears series. Carwell introduces Benjie to dope, and takes him to the spider’s lair, namely Tiger (Kevin Hooks), a slick Pied Piper bent on hooking local boys on smack so they’ll do his bidding.
Benjie is hardly a street urchin; he has a devoted mother, and Mom’s boyfriend as a common-law stepdad. Mrs. Johnson, played by Cicely Tyson – ubiquitous in race-themed “prestige” projects in the ‘70s and early ‘80s – is perpetually worried about her son, and what he’s up to. Her partner, Butler (Paul Winfield) is equally concerned about Benjie, but often at odds with the boy, and annoyed that the woman he loves isn’t a stronger disciplinarian.
Benjie enjoys support at school from two caring teachers, as well. The first, Nigeria (showily portrayed by veteran Glynn Turman) is a hip Afrocentric extrovert, exhorting his students to recite with gusto important facts of black history, and Benjie proves adept at absorbing this information. In fact, he’s a prodigious reader, and one imagines him as a teacher himself, given the right encouragement.
Benjie’s other influence is Mr. Cohen(“Rhoda’s” David Groh), a textbook liberal humanist, concerned that Nigeria’s over-emphasis on African history and desire to rid the school of non-white staff are, at best, misguided. Their differences take center stage in a provocative discussion and inevitably Cohen’s Jewish heritage is brought up. I wish that the conflict between these two iron-willed educators, in some ways a tug-of-war over education policy, history, and white privilege, played a larger role in the story, which could explore terrain into which A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwichdoesn’t venture. Indeed, we never see Cohen again after his chat with Nigeria.
Why does Benjie go wrong? One could ask that question of countless kids who make bad choices. Benjie’s descent occurs rapidly, perhaps too quickly, as we don’t get a feeling for what’s so bleak about Benjie’s life. I don’t necessarily see that as a failing however, as so many children from solid households fall prey to the allure of rebellious kicks.
Where A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwichultimately stumbles is with its writing. Some of its dialogue is didactic and obvious, lacking the elemental poetry of the title. The screenplay is riddled with earnest pleas, defying the cinematic golden rule to show, not tell.
It’s also dramatically curious that Mrs. Bell – Benjie’s grandmother – isn’t taken to the hospital after being beaten by two ruffians and left in an alley. Mrs. Johnson is simply too loving a daughter for this to make sense.
And much as I hate to throw stones at the impeccably-cheekboned Cicely Tyson – the black Meryl Streep? – her work here is sometimes overwrought, particularly in one sequence where – completely out of left field – she flies into a rage, screaming “Shut up!” to Benjie, then telling him and Butler to “Get the hell off my back!” This moment arrives so suddenly, so without warning, it becomes almost comical. Not a good sign.
And like too many American films, the soundtrack is needlessly cluttered with background music, the score often intrusive during tense scenes, where the viewer is better served by silence. Let the actors lead the audience – or knock them off-kilter – not admittedly skillful jazz theatrics. When Benjie initially shoots up, the horror of this baby-faced boy filling his veins with junk is undermined by a hop-skip piano dance. Speaking of which, Benjie’s social life seems strangely divorced from any music, and street gangs are non-existent(!)
Oddly enough, the film is now rated “PG”, but I doubt it was during its release, as the F-bomb is heard several times. Apparently, the MPAA has become slightly more tolerant about language.
A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich is certainly well-meaning drama, with fine performances, but anyone seeing it for the first time will find it’s story familiar. The archetypes it helped establish have long since been utilized in many so-called ‘hood films. Still, it tells a story fairly gripping for its time about an important issue which, sadly, remains contemporary.