‘A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich’ DVD review

Alice Childress took it upon herself to write the screenplay for the 1978 cinematic adaptation of her 1973 young adult novel, and it’s easy to understand why. That book, of course, inculcated thousands of white, suburban high schoolers with the notion that their urban black peers were doomed to lives of drug-addicted ghetto-dwelling; despite the best efforts of well-meaning lit teachers, the book’s astonishingly judgment-free look at the trials of smart-ass Benjie could easily be mistaken for tacit approval of his teenage junk habit. Of course, it wasn’t, although it could be said that Childress’ use of nuance and subtle character-building — not to mention her lack of an appropriately uplifting resolution — may have easily gone over the heads of many in her intended audience. No such nuance was employed in the film version. Benjie clearly is painted as a victim of circumstance here, the oppressive and poverty-stricken setting of early ’70s Harlem beating him into submission as the earnest but quixotic efforts of his mom (Cicely Tyson) and stepdad (Paul Winfield) barely keeping the young man afloat. As in the book, the most provocative character here is the Black Power-spouting teacher Nigeria Greene (Glynn Turman). Although Ben Nelson’s flat and linear direction doesn’t do justice to the refined morality of Childress’ streamlined screenplay, the power of the story and some notable performances keep Herofrom turning into an afterschool special.

First appeared Feb. 18, 2009 in Detroit Metrotimes.


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