I watched the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, Benji, for the twentieth time this weekend. This very moving film tells the tragic story of the shooting death of Chicago basketball sensation Benjamin Wilson. At the time of his death, the 17-year-old was ranked the number one high school player in the nation and so was a highly sought after recruit. As Michael Wilbon attests in the film, stories of promises unfulfilled are often compelling and this one is no less so.
The film features many of Benji’s friends–some of whom had known him since he was just 3-years-old. Every person who chronicles his life and his promise is male, except one person. Though Benji’s mother appears in the film through television footage, she does not author her own words directly for this film, which was made after her death in 2000. The one woman who appears was a friend to both Benji and Billy Moore, the sixteen-year-old shooter. The first ten times I saw the film, I don’t think I paid much attention to the nearly totalizing male voice and perspective, but once I did, I began to think a great deal about how the “bro-mance” works to create a mythical, heroic tale of Benji as an unchallenged truth. While the tragedy is no less affecting given this limitation, other perspectives would have certainly challenged the narrative of good versus bad and innocence versus guilt as the most prominent themes in the film.
The male chroniclers limit their evaluation of Benji’s faults. Despite these limits, Benji’s faults still surface. While the men, for example, extoll the love that Benji had for his girlfriend Jetun Rush, they overlook his aggressiveness towards her as nothing more than the two having challenges in their relationship after the birth of their son, Brandon. What they construct as a lover’s spat is better described as violence over her refusal to give him the attention he wanted. On one occasion, he grabs her and becomes so rough with her that when a teacher intervenes, Benji reacts by hitting the man and knocking him to the ground. According to his friends and family, Benji was incredibly apologetic to his teacher and regretted his actions–as did his mother who was frustrated that her son, the number one player in the country, struck a teacher. No one, however, link his imperfections–as one friend muses–to his aggression towards Jetun. His friends and family seemed to overlook his aggression towards Jetun at school and on their fateful walk to the bus stop where he meets his shooter. To them, Benji looooooved Jetun and this was evidenced by him crying over her, according to his brother, and apparently through what he expressed to his friends. Jetun’s story might have challenged this romantic narrative and highlighted an ego that his friends insisted was totally justified confidence.
Rather than romantic love, the more interesting love story that I think the film tells is about forgiveness. Unfortunately, most of this narrative gets displaced in the film and is told mainly through the bonus features. The bonus features grant more attention to Billy Moore, the person who shot and killed Benji. Moore tells of how he accepted responsibility for the tragic act that cost Wilson his life; how he asked Benji’s parents for their forgiveness; how he asked Benji’s friends for forgiveness; and how he continues to work to make a positive contribution to his community. Unlike the romance/bro-mance of the central narrative, the tale of Moore’s quest for forgiveness does not seduce the viewer into a familiar tale of good guys and bad guys. It’s a shame that the love story of seeking redemption doesn’t provide the allure of (b)romance, because, to cite Don Henley, forgiveness really is “the heart of the matter” complicating the fairytales and myths mistakenly taken for history.