CIFF Review: Benji


[Flixist will be attending the 48th Chicago International Film Festival over the next few weeks. Be sure to follow along as we bring you coverage from the longest-running competitive international film festival in the country. You can easily keep track of the coverage here.]

Chicago is a very storied sports city. From the longevity of our baseball teams to the ruggedness of the Bears to the dominance of the Bulls dynasties during the 1990s, it’s hard to grow up in this city without being ingrained of the sports culture that’s just as well-known as the city’s dark past. For Chicago’s young athletes, their lives revolve around their chosen sport, but the dangers of the city’s violent streets can fade away even the brightest of stars.

Link to the trailer for Benji

Directors:  Coodie and Chike
Rating: TBD
Release Date: October 23, 2012 (as part of ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series)

In 1984, a high school basketball player named Benjamin Wilson was the first in the city’s history to be named the number one high school basketball player in the United States following his high school’s, Simeon Vocational High School, first state championship. Local and national eyes were on Wilson, touted by some scouts as the most talented basketball player they’ve seen… all of this in the same year the sport’s arguably best player, Michael Jordan, was drafted by the Chicago Bulls. However, one unfortunate encounter on a November morning resulted in Wilson’s tragic murder before the start of his Senior season.

Utilizing a mix of archival footage, animated sequences, and contemporary interviews ranging from Wilson’s neighbors and teammates to well-known Chicagoan figures that grew up alongside Wilson (including ESPN journalist Michael Wilbon, former basketball player Juwan Howard, and singer R. Kelly), Benji was stylistically put together by directors Coodie and Chike who are mostly known for the Through the Wire video from Kanye West’s debut album. Coodie and Chike’s roots in music videos show in Benji with their decision to cut the documentary using mixed media. However, all the stylish notions wouldn’t amount to anything if the subject matter wasn’t up to snuff. 

Benji evokes sentimentality and nostalgia as it tells Wilson’s life, from his beginnings as an aspiring basketball player to who could have been the greatest athlete to come from Chicago. What hit me the most is how his life mirrors that of Derrick Rose’s, the former NBA MVP and starting point guard for the Chicago Bulls. Like Wilson, Rose went to Simeon, bringing the school its first championship since Wilson’s almost three decades ago. It’s just one of those things you can’t plan for, but Rose is like Wilson’s spiritual successor; when the question of “What if?” is risen about what could have been Wilson’s future, Rose could be seen as the answer. A sense of mythological wonderment revolves around the ghost of Wilson. He wasn’t just a basketball player; he was the city’s son that was destined for greatness.

I understand that a bulk of this review has revolved on how local its effect is, and I do apologize for that, but Benji definitely hits close to home given its setting. His legacy spread across the entire city, with various laws involving trauma patients being adapted in the wake of his murder. Furthermore, he represents a role model for aspiring athletes in the city, as well as one of the city’s tragic figures.

You don’t have to be from Chicago or even enjoy basketball to find something provoking in Benji. I’ve always said that sportswriting consists of some of the best forms of writing, and the ESPN 30 for 30 series exemplifies this. The documentary is an emotional, nostalgic look at a young person’s life being cut just as he was beginning to achieve stardom. Benji represents one of the best entries not only in EPSN Films’ 30 for 30 series, but one of the well-crafted sports documentaries.

(Benji will have its ESPN premiere on October 23rd at 8pm EST/7pm CST.)