IN THIS GAME there are no Aces, no Kings and no numbers; the King split the scene a long time ago. It's about two jacks...getting to know each other."
A Hero Ain't Nothing but a Sandwich tells the story of a black 13-year-old growing up in a Los Angeles ghetto. While the story explores the various intricacies of this environment (the roof-tops, the asphalt basketball courts and the classrooms), it is primarily a study of the relationship that builds between the boy, Benji (played by Larry Scott) and his stepfather, Butler (Paul Winfield).
Benji's real father abandons his family at some point previous to the opening of the narrative, leaving his wife, Sweets (Cicely Tyson), to fend for herself. Sweets meets Butler, who soon becomes the bread-winner for the family. Benji refuses to accept Butler as a father despite the latter's conciliatory advances. If this relationship provides the framework for comprehending the machinations of Benji's character, then the other individuals furnish the embellishment necessary to reach that understanding.
Benji displays an unusual sensitivity for an adolescent. He is encouraged by his teachers at certain points in the movie to give his personal beliefs or thoughts. His responses are profound and shocking in that they reveal a deep-seated irony that ultimately reflects a deep awareness of his Blackness. At one point, for example, after Benji has presented a masterful essay to his English class, his teacher (the only white administrator outside the principal in the school) approaches him and says, "You know, Benji, that was very good. I think you would make a good writer. You could become somebody someday...Benji, what are you thinking now?" "I am somebody right now," he responds.
In an attempt to escape his loneliness and frustration, Benji turns to drugs. His habit gets progressively worse and little by little his world falls apart: first he starts stealing from his own family, then a friend dies of an overdose and finally, in a moment of abject despair, he attempts suicide.
Winfield and Tyson are paired together for the first time since Sounder, and their character portrayals are much the same as in that film. Winfield seems to have a talent for playing the role of a patient and understanding father--in Sounder, the story of a poverty-stricken sharecropper family, he portrayed this character with a moving simplicity. In Green Eyes he expanded this role in his role as a Vietnam veteran in search of a lost child.
In light of these previous successes, Winfield's appearance in Hero is somewhat disappointing. As Butler, Winfield's behavior oscillates between tenderness and violence, and his relationship with Benji throughout the movie is uneasy.
Cicely Tyson's performance as Sweets lacks depth. She perpetually lapses into hysterics and cannot solidify her feelings towards both husband and son. Tyson appears unaccustomed to this type of characterization, and her presentation suffers in that it seems contrived at times.
ON THE WHOLE, Hero entertains, but falls short of its apparent goals in several respects. Director Ralph Nelson obviously places the characters within a larger, moralistic framework, yet one senses that this ostensible structure lacks the same direction or definition that the characters themselves have. Nelson criticizes both the cultural and educational systems which reinforce the widespread abuse of drugs; yet for Benji, the self-proclaimed "lonesome ass," the hallucinogenic world into which he throws himself seems almost a welcome contrast to the emptiness of his ghetto life.
Benson's real forte is his imaginative use of the moment: he can collapse any one of the film's various motifs into a single shot. At one point we find Benji's grandmother saying, "Thoughts can hurt more than real things," unaware that her grandson is greedily eyeing her pocketbook; at another instant we see Benji praying to God--in the solitude of his bathroom; at a third moment we find Caldwell, Benji's young junkie friend, lying in a coffin dressed in a three-piece suit that he never would or could have worn while alive.
As the title implies, there are no absolute heroes in this movie; each character has major faults (Butler his harshness, Benji his self-righteousness). By the same token, however, there are no villains. Nelson's attempt to censure "the system" seems unjustifiable in his context, as the individuals who make up that system in the film, ranging from teacher to dealer, are, on the whole, very humane.
If this film purports to be a well-rounded study of character development, it fails after a certain point: while Benji and Butler come to a closer understanding of one another and learn to adjust to each other's differences, there is a certain reservoir of tension between them that can never be resolved, not even in the film's closing shot of their final embrace. If, on the other hand, the film tries to represent a 'slice of life,' a sampling of the ghetto experience, then it succeeds. The unrefined and somewhat static nature of the characters can only add plausibility to what can loosely be terned a naturalistic film.