Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich

A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich
Directed by Ralph Nelson
Koch Vision

Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson were a very successful cinematic couple, with both earning Academy Award nominations for their work as the parents in 1972’s Sounder. Five years later, they paired together on-screen again, but this time Winfield played Butler, the prospective step-father to Tyson’s single mother. This is a crucial distinction for her son Benjie, the confused thirteen year-old protagonist of A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (trailer here), now available on DVD.

Benjie’s environment is less than ideal. Director Ralph Nelson shows us a smoggy, blighted Los Angeles in his opening shots, in which crime is increasingly a fact of life. Yet, Benjie has a loving mother and grandmother, as well as Butler, his mother’s live-in boyfriend, who earnestly tries to do right by the entire family. However, his father’s desertion has left Benjie in a state of denial, leading to resentment of Butler, despite his obvious potential as a father-figure.

This is most definitely the 1970’s, and institutions like Benjie’s George Washington Carver Junior High are in turmoil. His homeroom teacher prefers African-Nationalism to academics, whereas his English teacher is a holdout for standards. They clash over issues of curriculum and whether to deal openly with the school’s burgeoning drug problem. Unfortunately, Benjie will fall victim to neighborhood pushers, developing a nasty heroin habit, which leads him to steal from Butler and his grandmother, putting the proceeds up his arm.

Sandwich is a product of the 1970’s in a good way too, featuring a smoothly funky, flute-heavy soundtrack composed by Tom McIntosh and performed by flutist Hubert Laws group, including Victor Lewis on drums and Barry Finnerty on guitar. Musicians for the large ensemble arrangements also include the composer on trombone and jazz studio veterans like Plas Johnson on tenor and Victor Feldman on vibes.

Altogether, Sandwich is an interesting time-capsule of the late 1970’s, featuring an interesting cast, including Larry B. Scott (who would later attain some notoriety as one of the geeks in the Revenge of the Nerds franchise), as Benjie. The standout performance though comes from Paul Winfield as Butler. A former jazz musician forced to accept janitorial employment, Butler is still a proud man, who finds no shame in hard work. He is in fact, an excellent role model, but Benjie’s head is not in a place that would allow him to see Butler clearly. Nelson, the director of classics like Lilies of the Field and Charly, would end his career with a string of made-for-tv movies, and at times Sandwich has that kind of look. However, his use of still photo montages during Benjie’s dramatic stretch in rehab is surprisingly effective.

Based on the young adult novel by Alice Childress, who also wrote the screenplay, Sandwich is definitely an “issue” film, but the drama is substantial. Clearly, Sandwich is a product of its time, but is well worth revisiting on the strength of Winfield’s exceptional work and the cool tunes from McIntosh and Laws.