An earnest exploration of problems bedeviling America’s inner cities, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich was adapted from the noted Alice Childress novel of the same name. Put bluntly, the story doesn’t work in terms of cinematic narrative, because Childress, who also wrote the screenplay, failed to define the central focus, thereby falling into the myriad traps of episodic structuring. Is the movie about a young man’s descent into heroin addiction? Is it about that same young man’s fraught relationship with his mother’s boyfriend, a stand-up guy who struggles to break through the protagonist’s youthful arrogance? Or is the story about the difficulties that the protagonist’s mother and teachers face when trying to instill a sense of cultural pride and personal purpose, despite the bleak milieu of life in South Central Los Angeles? The answer to all of these questions is “yes,” and that’s the problem—with rare exceptions, the trick to adapting novels for the screen involves peeling away subplots and themes until only the core story remains, giving filmmakers the tools they need to create onscreen momentum. That didn’t happen here. So, while a great deal of what happens in A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich is believable and poignant, the parts never cohere into a potent statement.
The main character is Benjie (Larry B. Scott), a teenager caught between good and bad influences. On the good side, he’s got his stalwart mother, Sweets (Cicely Tyson); her boyfriend, Butler (Paul Winfield); and an Afrocentric schoolteacher, Nigeria (Glynn Turman), who encourages Benjie’s nascent writing ability. On the bad side are various neighborhood lowlifes, including the dealers who draw Benjie into heroin use. While the scenes of Benjie injecting himself are bracing, they feel a bit disconnected from the rest of the story until the second half of the picture, which focuses on Benjie’s attempt to kick his deadly habit. Similarly, it’s unclear that the movie’s most important relationship is the one between Benje and Butler until very close to the end of the movie, when Winfield’s intense work raises the dramatic quality of A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich to a level suiting the seriousness of the subject matter.
A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich: FUNKY