ESPN Films’ latest 30 for 30 premieres Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) with Benji – the tragic story of Ben Wilson, the first high school player in Chicago’s history to be ranked as the nation’s top recruit and his senseless murder in 1984.
Front Row spoke with directors Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah to ask about Benji and what it was like to premiere this film at the Chicago International Film Festival this past week.
Why did you want to tell Ben’s story through ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series?
Ozah: ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series gives directors like ourselves a lot of creative liberties, thus creating an ideal environment to tell a story the way we envision. We were honored to be a part of this series as we were fans way before we even had the opportunity to participate as directors. A year back, we actually attended a Tribeca screening for Catching Hell and I can remember feeling like “man, it would be so cool if we could have the opportunity to direct a 30 for 30 film.”
What do you hope that people learn from Benji?
Simmons: I’ve said from the beginning that one of our main goals with this film is to make even the thugs cry. What happened to Ben was so senseless and there is so much violence on the streets of Chicago still today. If we can make one less kid carry a gun, or think before he pulls a trigger, our hopes will be realized.
What did ESPN columnist Scoop Jackson contribute to the feature?
Ozah: Scoop did an article back in the 1990s on Ben that we came across in our research. He was terrific to work with and he made a very valuable contribution to this film, both with his on-camera commentary and through sharing his own experiences around how Chicago dealt with Ben’s murder. Scoop even joined me and Coodie for some press interviews last week in Chicago to discuss the film.
What was the Chicago International Film Festival premiere like?
Simmons: It was an amazing experience being at the Chicago Film Festival. In 1984, Ben’s death really shook the city and since I’m a Chicago native originally, my memories are really strong about that time period. Doing the screenings there and especially one we did last Thursday for high school students, it really made us feel like this film can make a difference in people’s lives.