Boys Basketball: ‘Benji’ documentary on Ben Wilson told with a wide lens

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Updated: October 25, 2012 9:46PM

Coodie Simmons was a 13-year-old seventh-grader living in Beverly in November 1984 when he learned about the shooting of Simeon basketball star Ben Wilson.

‘‘Back then, we saw a lot of people get shot and be OK,’’ he said.

‘‘The next morning, I was home when I found out he died, and I was crying like he was my brother.’’

The hip-hop video director and filmmaker is part of the celebrated collective Coodie and Chike with New Orleans native Chike Ozah. Their first feature film, ‘‘Benji,’’ which was Wilson’s nickname, is a sorrowful and powerful documentary about Wilson’s brief though incandescent life.

Made under the auspices of ESPN’s ‘‘30 for 30’’ series, the movie plays Wednesday and Thursday at the AMC River East (322 E. Illinois St.) as part of the Chicago International Film festival, with the filmmakers present. The broadcast premiere is on ESPN at 7 p.m. Oct. 23.

Simmons graduated from Julian and studied mass communications at Northern Illinois. He met Ozah on their groundbreaking video for Kanye West’s ‘‘Through the Wire.’’ Just as they deployed a striking use of Polaroids in that video, the filmmakers interpolate archival footage, first-person interviews and expressive black-and-white animation in relating Wilson’s alternately remarkable and tragic story.

They frame Wilson’s rise against the backdrop of Harold Washington’s political career and the arrival of Michael Jordan, interspersed with gang violence and the introduction of crack cocaine.

The filmmakers point out that Wilson’s murder was the 669th that year in Chicago.

‘‘That’s the only one we talk about,’’ Simmons said.

‘‘We wanted to tell the story of Chicago and how I felt, as a young man growing up there, with the danger of gangs, the thrill of house parties, where there was a lot of fun but also that bit of danger.’’

The most chilling parts of the film deal with the parallel story of Billy Moore, the 16-year-old convicted of Wilson’s murder.

Wilson, who helped Simeon create a high school basketball dynasty with a state-best six state titles, is the forebearer to Nick Anderson, Derrick Rose and now Jabari Parker. Wilson, the movie asserts, is ‘‘a mythical figure fixed in Chicago’s collective memory.’’

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