A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1978)

9 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What’s more disturbing about drug use is that some people are the ones we least suspect of using. Take Benjie: He’s 13 years old. He lives in the Watts ghetto with his caring mother, stepfather, and grandmother. He’s a bright junior high school student. He’s happy just hanging out with his friends.

Now he’s a heroin addict. He was introduced to the stuff by one of his buddies, and loves the high so much that he frequently buys from the local drug dealer.

Benjie is the focus of “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich,” a tough, well-acted, gritty family drama about a confused boy caught in a world of drug addiction. He keeps saying he isn’t hooked—he is.

The situation gets worse, and Benjie is eventually sent to a drug rehabilitation center when everyone finds out about him. In one of the most bizarre sequences in the movie, we see in photo slides Benjie coping with rehab—in between is a painfully effective scene in which Benjie is confronted by an encounter group and tearfully opens up to them.

That leads to the second half of the movie, as Benjie deals with rehabilitation, starting over, deeper temptation, and his relationship with his stepfather.

The most interesting part of “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich” is the relationship between Benjie and his stepfather. The stepfather is not written as a monster to act as reason for Benjie to use drugs in the first place. Instead, he tries to be the best father Benjie can be, but Benjie constantly shuts him out when he’s there for him. Benjie tells his best friend that he does this because he’s afraid that if he winds up loving him like a father, then he’ll be sad if this new father leaves, like his old father. When the stepfather—named Butler—finds out about Benjie’s new hobby, he’s very strict and sometimes goes out of line, but tries to do the right thing by him. And when things get really nasty, he seems to be the only person Benjie can depend on. But the problem is, he can get to his wit’s end with the kid.

Those scenes make “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich” more of a movie about family values and trust rather than merely a story of tragedy involving young people and drugs (though it is that, as well).

The acting is great, especially seen in the scenes involving Paul Winfield as Butler and Larry B. Scott as Benjie. Paul Winfield is excellent as Butler—he creates a character that is tough and persuasive as he tries to be a hero figure as a surrogate father for a disillusioned teenager. Larry B. Scott turns in a believable performance as a kid who has high spirits but whose ambitions turn low. Cicely Tyson as Benjie’s mother, Helen Martin as Benjie’s grandmother, and Kevin Hooks as the drug dealer named “Tiger” are also solid.

What surprised me about “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich” was how honest it was. In fact, at times, it’s hard to watch. But that means it’s working. Just about every scene in this movie is so authentic that at times it is frightening. It’s an effective tale about how pride, trust, and respect can be taken away by drugs, and about how coping and willing with withdrawal can gain them back.

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