Something that all hardcore sports fans, but cinephiles may not be fully aware of: ESPN’s “30 For 30” series of documentaries on various touchstone moments in sports history are all by and large, riveting and dramatic pieces of work worth watching regardless if you’re a sports fan are not. While that particular series, which was by co-conceived by ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, is now over, the range of talent it secured — directors like Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Barry Levinson, Steve James ("Hoop Dreams"), Peter Berg, Barry Levinson — was no joke (the Zimbalist brothers' "The Two Escobars,” being one of this writer’s absolute favorites; a terrifically gripping documentary).
So while “30 For 30,” no longer exists officially, the spirit of absorbing high quality usually remains in every subsequent doc that ESPN produces. Such is the case with “Benji,” the latest in a long line of excellent docs from the cable sports network. Directed by music video filmmakers Coodie and Chike (clips for Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Christina Aguilera, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Gil Scott-Heron and John Legend among others) turned documentarians, “Benji,” their first feature-length effort, focuses on Benjamin "Benji" Wilson Jr., a 17-year-old American basketball player in Chicago, Illinois, who was shot to death on the eve of the start of his senior season in high school.
But Benji wasn’t just your average basketball hopeful with hoop dreams. By all accounts, the young 6’7 athlete was primed to be the next Michael Jordan and famous talent scout Bob Gibbons (one of the men widely credited for recruiting Jordan) ranked Wilson the number-one high school player in America. Nicknamed "Magic Johnson with a jump shot," Wilson’s innate and preternatural talents pointed at a future far beyond average basketball success; this was a phenomenon waiting to explode once he hit college and then, inevitably, the NBA. But on November 21, 1984, Wilson was gunned down the day before his senior season was to begin, leaving a gaping hole in the hearts of Chicagoans who viewed the young boy as a aspirational dream in their community.
Though Benji’s tragic demise is established within the first ten minutes of the documentary, it’s the story of how he got to the top and who he was and the reflections of the community that grew up around him, that makes “Benji” so compelling and watchable.
Told via intimate and candid interviews with Benji’s family, childhood friends, teachers, coaches, basketball teammates (R. Kelly being one of them) and friends who went on to NBA stardom themselves (Nick Anderson and Juwan Howard) and stunning (if grainy) basketball footage, Coodie and Chike paint a portrait of Benji as a driven, ambitious, well-admired and sweet-natured student who had everything going for him. Great historical context is given both from a sports and sociological perspective. In the depressed sections of Chicago’s Southside, many of them riddled with bleak gang violence, Benji’s impending and seemingly inevitable success turned the athlete into a hopeful symbol of everything promising about Chicago.
Stylish, featuring motion graphic animation by Alexander Cardia, and well-shot (another striking example of excellent digital photography), “Benji” is engaging and well-constructed. However, Where “Benji” falters and becomes unfocused is in chronicling the teenager’s murder. And in part, it’s less the filmmakers fault, and more the fact that Benji’s story takes a lot of twists and turns that don’t necessarily help the main narrative.
In the fallout of Benji’s death, which makes national headlines and devastates the city of Chicago, everyone wants a piece of Benji for their agenda. The well-meaning Jesse Jackson comes to the aid of Wilson’s mother (a strong-as-nails nurse with an emotional fortitude that is heartbreakingly tough), but Benji’s funeral becomes more of a circus for political groups wanting to turn the discussion to violence, gun control, et al. Additionally, Benji’s murder was not as black and white as it was first sold (he was not robbed and then shot) and in searching for the truth in the story, the doc inadvertently takes some out of the sting of his death. Chasing the murderer unmoors the documentary as well, as what’s revealed is less of a monster who senselessly killed Benji for money, but a model-portrait of the prison rehabilitation system, who carelessly shot Benji in a foolish altercation of words between the two men.
While the doc tends to wander out of focus and off-message in the third act, the story is the story and it's hard to fault the filmmakers for closing all the loops. It does make for a tale not quite as uplifting and satisfying as it seems to be at first, but it’s still a honest, striking and emotionally stirring chronicle of a promising life cut down way too soon. [B]