This Season's First Classic 30 for 30: 'Benji'

The inspirational & heartbreaking story of Ben Wilson's life and death

Ben Wilson, No. 1
Ben Wilson, No. 1 (ESPN ESPN)

After whetting our appetite the past few weeks, ESPN finally delivered a documentary in their latest batch of 30 for 30’s that will go in the pantheon of great ESPN films such as June 17, 1994; The Two Escobars; and Once Brothers. Coodie and Chike's Benji.

This emotionally rich film of Ben Wilson's life and death being so good was no surprise to me. The film debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and was met with rave reviews. Still, as I was waiting to see a film about a basketball phenom who died at an early age, I kept thinking I was going to watch something along the lines of Len Bias: The Early Years. I’d see a basketball player create high expectations with his ridiculously gifted ability, get caught up in some trouble, and pass away at an early age. I was expecting something fairly formulaic.

Instead, I was treated to a story that had a narrative all to its own. And chronologically, this was almost two years before Bias’ death, which probably goes to show how things have changed in the past 25-plus years. If this had happened to Derrick Rose or Jabari Parker (two other high school basketball phenoms from Simeon Vocational HS, now named Simeon Career Academy) the story would have had longer and more national legs – other than just a Tom Brokaw bit – to it than it did in 1984 and more people outside of Chicago would have remembered the story many years later. With a final 30 minutes that had plenty of powerful moments and multiple twists and turns, I had to retrain my brain to comprehend what I was taking in. This was not the same story as Len Bias. And it wasn’t just about a Len Bias-type either. It was about much more.

The first three-quarters of the film had everything I expected from a story about a 17 year old who tragically and needlessly died too early. Coodie and Chike paint a picture of a sweet and innocent kid who had the best possible foundation you could ask for living in Chicago’s south side. He was involved in athletics to keep him out of gangs and he was enrolled in a school that was considered safe. But, of course, there are always dangers, even unlikely ones, on every street.

And so once we get to the final quarter of the film, after we think we know the whole story of Ben Wilson’s death, we get hit with something unexpected:

"Should I start from the beginning? ... This is the first time I am officially telling this story of what actually took place the day that I, uh, you know, uh, committed the crime that I committed that sent me to the penitentiary." - Billy Moore

The inclusion of Billy Moore, the man who shot and inadvertently killed Benji, turns the film on its head. The reformed criminal provides a side of the story that no one sees coming and it had me rethinking everything I had watched in the first hour. Was Benji really that innocent? Were Billy and Omar really that guilty? Who’s really to blame for Benji’s death? JaTon? Billy? Chicago? His inclusion in the final quarter makes rewatching the first three quarters a requirement.

Looking back, what I enjoyed so much about the film were the red herrings dropped throughout the first three-quarters, hinting to how Benji could end up being murdered, with none of them actually coming to fruition. Benji doesn’t get caught up in a gang troubles, he doesn’t get in a big fight involving his girlfriend JaTon (not directly, anyway), and he’s never approached about a missing $10 bill.

Instead, thanks to Billy’s side of the story, which sounds a lot more plausible than the story that sent Billy and Omar to prison, a child died because of a shoulder bump that neither teenager was willing to back down from.

Certainly a great story and one that I feel I can learn from. As Coodie explains in my interview with the directors, the main lesson to get from this film is, “Think before you act.”

And with that in mind, a few other thoughts:

It’s one thing when a few childhood friends say Benji was “Magic Johnson with a jump shot,” but when Nick Anderson, Mike Wilbon, and countless other celebrities back up that story, you have to wonder if he could have been the rival Michael Jordan never had. And with Benji hailing from Chicago, the stories of this rivalry could have been legendary, surpassing Larry and Magic. Alas, could have been …

R. Kelly, who can sometimes come off as unintentionally funny, nails an acappella version of G.C. Cameron’s “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” His best work since Trapped in the Closet, Chapter 10.

Speaking of which, fans of The Wire can see so many parallels (not including the above clip which includes Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), first of which being that Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) is the film’s narrator. Not to mention that Omar Dixon plays the role of Randy Wagstaff, the mostly innocent kid who gets punished the hardest and becomes a criminal for life as a result. And in my interview that included ESPN Film’s Jay Jay Nesheim, she mentions how JaTon’s story might have been an altered truth in order to put Billy and Omar in jail. Kima Greggs would have had a big problem with that. “Sometimes things just gotta play hard, right?”

This week’s MVP award goes to Mary Wilson, Ben’s mother. While only faintly mentioned at the beginning of the film as a strict and devoutly religious nurse who was working so much that she couldn’t always be there to raise Benji, she provides the most powerful moments in the film. She almost brought me to tears in each scene she's in, especially the one just hours after her son’s death. “It’s not how long you live, but how well you live.” Amen, Mary. I can’t imagine talking to anyone after the death of a close relative, let alone talking in front of cameras to reporters and then to a school auditorium filled with grieving teenagers looking for direction in a dire time, but she does it with such strength that it’s as inspirational as it is heart-breaking.

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