ESPN 30 for 30: Benji (2012)

Directed by Coodie & Chike

Over the past few years I have becomes much more interested in the art of documentary filmmaking, seeking out and enjoying a great number of some of the greatest real life stories delivered in compelling and powerful presentations. This marathon has certainly aided in whetting that appetite, but two of the greatest examples I have uncovered in the last few years are by famed documentarian Steve James. His first film, Hoop Dreams, chronicles the high school careers of two young men in inner-city Chicago as they pursue their dreams of becoming NBA stars. The second, also set in inner-city Chicago tells the story of violence interrupters whose sole purpose is to intervene in gang violence to help find peaceful solutions. The Interrupters was my favorite film from 2011.

It may seem odd that I bring up these two films, but they are what stood out as I was watching Benji, the story of an inner-city basketball star slain in a chance encounter at an age that was much too young for his tremendous talent. It seems to encompass what both Steve James films were highlighting. Benjamin Wilson was a phenom in Chicago, finding a growth spurt and hard work and dedication transforming him over night into the best prospect in the nation. A 6′ 8″ junior who could shoot and dribble like a point guard. An unstoppable force with the personality and the looks to make Wilson the complete package, ready for stardom, and to bring his family and community tremendous pride in his accomplishments.

Any tragedy is a hard story to take in, even if we remain distant from its blast radius, removed from it geographically as well as economically or emotionally. It becomes even harder when the storytellers of said tragedy rely much too heavily on the knowledge and sympathy of the viewer. Coodie and Chike, the two directors of this film, set out to create a deserving ode to their fallen hero Benjamin “Benji” Wilson, but what ultimately results is held at arms length from the viewer. I failed, throughout the length of the film, to draw a true connection or appreciation for the story being told. Certainly, however, I am not of callous heart and by human nature can sympathize with the family and friends who have experienced the tragedy.

A short summary of Wilson’s basketball skills and accolades gives inadequate proof of his abilities. The video highlights are impressive, albeit unconvincing. I never felt as though I knew who Benjamin Wilson truly was, only a shell of the whole which stands to hold the place long enough to compose a film of certain length and with a particular point. I mean not to belittle the anguish of those whose connection with this tragic tale is both very personal and preconceived. But when evaluating the merit of the film itself, I find it falls short of any true expectations nor does it seem to live up to the sort of love which was universally extended to Benji.

There is no doubt in my mind he was a phenomenal player, a loving friend, son and brother, but the film itself left me in such a mediocre state, struggling for a passion to even attempt to convey my thoughts. There is nothing outwardly poor about the film, yet its true, I find, that the least remarkable films invoke the least remarkable words to describe them. This film is unremarkable from beginning to end. There is just never enough depth to the story, it never shows the teeth of the true grit and concern of violence in the city and fails to reveal the sorrowful fate of all those involved.

** – Fair

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