A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich is a 1978 film directed by Ralph Nelson. The screenplay was written by Alice Childress, based on her novel of the same name. It was shot on location in South Central Los Angeles. It was Nelson's last film before his death.
A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich opens by panning over downtown Los Angeles. The film takes place during the summertime.
Benjie (Larry B. Scott) is a likeable but troubled teen. He lives with Sweets (Cicely Tyson), his mother, and his grandmother, named Mrs. Bell (Helen Martin). Benjie has several friends within the neighborhood, his grades at school are above average, and he appears to be a normal, healthy teenager. However, there is something going on inside Benjie that nobody around him knows or understands. Benjie has deep pain, stemming from constantly dealing with his father having left the family and the fallout from his departure; exacerbated by Benjie's inability to get along with his mother's new boyfriend Butler (Paul Winfield).
Benjie copes with the emotional trauma by trusting his school friends and building relationships stronger than with his own family. He soon discovers that he is happier with his pseudo-family than what he considers a miserable real family. Benjie conforms to the group, and his behavior and outlook change rapidly as he is engulfed by overwhelming peer pressure.
Among Benjie’s buddies is Carwell (Erin Blunt), who introduces Benjie to heroin; one day he takes him to the drug dealer’s home, a man named Tiger (Kevin Hooks).
Benjie is hardly a street rat; he has a loving family who is always worrying about his well being. Butler (Paul Winfield), the new man around the house, is equally concerned about Benjie, but often at odds with him only to be opposed by the boy’s mother.
Benjie’s life at school is a refuge as he has two caring teachers who look after him. The first, a hip and bold extrovert called Nigeria (Glynn Turman), asks his students to learn and recite important facts of black history, in which Benjie proves he can absorb information with ease.
Benjie’s other influence is Mr. Cohen (David Groh) who is concerned that Nigeria’s over-emphasis on African history and desire to rid the school of white staff are wrong, a sort of antithesis of racial harmony. The conflict between these two polar opposites in belief, a tug-of-war over education, history, and white privilege, plays a larger end-game role in the story as we see it unfold before Benji’s eyes.
The continued drug use along with the corrupted group mentality soon gets Benjie hooked on heroin, ultimately finding his life crumbling to the merciless drug. The story that follows are the events leading up to a family learning to come to terms with a child who has hit rock bottom and the drastic life changes that have to be made for everyone involved.
Janet Maslin of The New York Times thought that the film was poorly executed but praised some of the acting: