The murder of high school basketball phenomenon Ben Wilson in 1984 is about gangs and loss and kids adrift; it is also about what it means to "be a man," as this idea is absorbed by children.
It wasn’t easy to [Billy Moore] 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.
-- Chike Ozah
"It was one of the happiest moments of my life," recalls Curtis Glenn, when his little brother Benjamin was born. "I didn't realize that I was going to practically raise him," he goes on, because both their parents had jobs, as a nurse and a postal worker. "I was only nine years old."
As he begins to tells his story in Benji, premiering this week on ESPN's 30 for 30 series, Curtis sits in a wide overstuffed chair, a shelf full of trophies behind him. He's wearing a white Nike tracksuit and a medal, the one his brother won in 1984, when he led the Simeon Vocational High School Wolverines to the Illinois State Championship, the school's first. His stardom, the film points out, coincided with other milestones in Chicago's history, the election of first black mayor Harold Washington, the rise of Jesse Jackson as a political force, and the signing of Michael Jordan by the Bulls. Even in this company, Wilson looms large, says Scoop Jackson, "part of Chicago's Mount Rushmore when it comes to basketball."
As most viewers will know, Wilson's life ended tragically, shot down on the sidewalk when he was just 17. And at first, the film traces this story much as you expect, complete with slow motion archival footage, local newspaper headlines, and testimonials by friends, coaches, and journalists. As a kid, "He had a relentless drive to improve," says Robert Hope Reid, who coached him in the Ida B. Wells Housing Projects League. His teammate R. Kelly remembers, "He used to love the passes." His focus on basketball helped him steer clear of the gangs. "Benji could have easily fell into the wrong crowd," says Curtis. If he did get in trouble, Curtis would take him to the basement: "I'd tell him, 'Go down in the hole,' and I would speak to him physically."
At Simeon, with coach Bob Hambric, Wilson grew taller (to about 6'7") and also better. Though Hambric's system wasn't built for one player to dominate, Wilson was a phenomenon, "one of Chicago's most talked about players," smart, athletic, and dedicated. Says journalist Jerry Shnay, "He had the ability to make the game come to him." When Wilson attended the weeklong Athletes For Better Education camp in Princeton, New Jersey that year, he was ranked the number one high school player in the nation, and as a junior, he'd already received offers from Illinois, DePaul, and Indiana. A clip of an interview with Benji back then only underscore his youth: skinny and self-possessed, he offers a basic explanation for his success: "I hear it so much, you hear it on radio and TV, go to school and keep your grades up."
In that moment, the film is poised between then and now, promise and loss. From the game footage and the cheering crowds, the film cuts back to Curtis, lamenting that he only saw, maybe, five of Benji's games. For even as he meant to bring his brother up right, he says, "I had issues myself, hanging out with bad crowds, doing drugs, we were freebasing." Curtis' admission here almost slips by, as the film keeps focused on his famous brother, but it's key to the documentary's astute retelling of Wilson's story, its reframing of his murder in 1984 and his legacy. For in between the inspiring archival footage and animated imaginings of scenes not recorded (including the murder), the film cuts back repeatedly to Curtis' interview, which makes its way from his pride in Benji to his regrets.
Most obviously, these regrets have to do with his brother's murder, which the film narrates more or less predictably (TV news reports, friends' memories of the funeral), before it doesn't. An interview with one of the two young men convicted of the crime, the shooter William Moore, offers a new perspective. The story here turns from the tragedy of losing Benji, brilliant and beloved, to a series of contexts, including the experiences available to and endured by young black men in the projects. While Curtis' "issues" with drugs both tragic and too familiar as a context, so too are Billy Moore's hardships, the loss of his father to cancer, his efforts to fit in with the Gangster Disciples, the easy access to guns. As he remembers it now, he became "a little, you know, out of control, certainly, to the point that carrying a gun was acceptable." Still, Moore says, "I never wanted to shoot anybody. I never even thought that I could pull the trigger on a human being."
That he did has to do with the gun in his hand that day on the sidewalk near Simeon High School, but it also has to do with how he thought about it. When Benji bumped into him on the sidewalk and then refused to apologize, he was surprised. (Viewers who know something about the case may be surprised too, as he and Omar Dixon were convicted of attempted burglary and murder, on the basis of confessions that now sound like adolescent posturing.) Moore says he showed his gun (an animated image shows the .22 in his waistband) and threatened Wilson, while something his grandfather once told him "rang down in my mind at this very moment," that is, never to "pull a gun on somebody and don’t use it: these are something you don't play with."
This terrible revelation is underlined by prosecutor Kenneth Malatesta. Looking back on the case, he notes, "They were young, they're awfully young, but like everything else, you’ve got to do your job." On top of Moore's phrasing, Malatesta's is devastating: the boys were young but everyone here had a "job" to do, from Moore to Wilson. And it's here that Curtis' interview is most poignant and most incisive. For as Curtis is describing his "issues," with drugs and neglect and absence, he goes on to describe what he thought he was doing right. Late in the film, he says, "I just wish that he could have, you know, just looked the other way, but I told him he had to be a man. He knew I was a man. He wanted to be a to like me. And I wish he hadn’t tried to be like me that day."
It's an astounding moment. Even as Benji extols the courage and terrific work of Benji's mother Mary Wilson in organizing the community to change hospital protocol as well as gun control laws, as well as the inspiration his memory provides for friends and teammates, it underlines this point, subtly. What it means to "be a man" is at the heartbreaking, haunting center of Wilson's story as much as Moore's, and Curtis Glenn's too.