Alice Childress' novel A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich came out when I was a kid, but because it wasn't a comic book, I never bothered to read it. But I do recall that the novel raised quite a stink when it came out, and that some of my teachers told me and my classmates that it was an unacceptable book for us to read. Knowing that some of my teachers didn't approve of the book made me almost want to read it, but like I said, at that point in my life I was on a literary diet of nothing but comic books.
Larry B. Scott, best remembered for his roles in Revenge of the Nerds and Fear of a Black Hat, stars as Benjie, a smarter-than-average 13 year-old, who lives with his mother, Sweets (Cicely Tyson), and his grandmother (Helen Martin). On the surface, Benjie seems to have a good life, but he harbors deep resentment and abandonment issues over his father having left, and he doesn't get along that well with his mother's current boyfriend, Butler (Paul Windfield). Hanging out after school with his friends, Benjie begins to experiment with drinking cheap wine and smoking weed. But things get a bit more serious when his friend Carwell (Erin Blun) introduces Benjie to Tiger (Kevin Hooks), the neighborhood dope dealer. It isn't long before Benjie is strung out on heroin, with his mother beside herself as to how to help her son, and Butler struggling to be father to a teenage boy who doesn't want much to do with him. Having hit rock bottom, Benjie is sent into rehab, but his struggles are just beginning, as first he must get clean, and then he must stay clean.
Reuniting Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield after their success together in Sounder, A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich was an attempt at bringing more diverse stories with black characters to the screen during the waning years of blaxploitation. Most of the black films of the 1970s were action thrillers or crime capers, with the occasional drama like Cornbread, Earl and Me or the abysmal The River Niger trying to bring a bit more legitimacy to the films that were being released. Some of these films, like the aforementioned River Niger or filmmaker Horace Jackson's sadly inept message movies, have been all but forgotten. Unfortunately, films like A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich have also been largely forgotten over the years.
A powerful drama derived from equally heady source material, A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich has some noticeable flaws. First and foremost are the uneven performances by a supporting cast that often deliver lines as if they're reading from cue cards. On that same note, Ralph Nelson's direction seems flat and lifeless at times. And the demons that haunt Benjie and lead him to seek an escape through drugs is never really addressed as much as could be. But these flaws are more than counterbalanced by the performance of the lead actors, especially Larry B. Scott, who carries the entire movie on his narrow shoulders. Although Tyson and Winfield were considered the stars of the film, the movie really belongs to Scott. Winfield's performance is equally as strong, as he tries to define his role as the father figure in Benjie's life. The chemistry between Scott and Winfield is palpable, and helps to give the film extra depth. Unfortunately, the same dynamic isn't always present between Tyson and Scott, or Tyson and Winfield for that matter. While she gives a solid performance, it never feels like she is really a mother or girlfriend, but rather and actress pretending to be one. Tyson's connection with Scott feels manufactured, especially compared to the raw connection between Rosalind Cash and Laurence Fishburne in Cornbread, Earl and Me.
Parts of A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich feel very dated, but other aspects of it are still very relevant. What is refreshing is the raw, bare knuckle approach the film often takes when showing Benjie wrestling with addiction. There are moments of such brutal emotion that it is easy to forget that this is a film meant for teenagers and their family. But it's this no-olds-barred approach, and the ambiguous yet optimistic ending that sets the film apart. In many ways this is a film that could not be made today, for fear that the ugly truth about teenage dope addiction is a little too ugly and a little too true.
A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich is presented in 4:3 full frame. The picture quality ranges from good to poor throughout, with inconsistencies in clarity and color. The print source itself is relatively clean and free of any noticeable flaws, but it looks almost as if the print was struck from several different sources. In one scene alone the color and sharpness of the images varies from shot to shot. Bottom line: the picture looks marginally acceptable for VHS standards, but does not maintain a consistent quality you would expect from DVD.
A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich is presented in English in 2.0 Dolby Digital. The audio levels are a bit low, but the mix itself is clean, with a solidly consistent transfer. Overall the sound is better than the picture.
There are no bonus features.
A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich is not a great film, but despite its flaws, it is a very good--thanks to the performances of the lead actors. It serves as a solid family drama that tackles difficult issues with a degree of candor and unsentimental honesty that is all too rare in movies these days.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]