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During the heyday of the film genre known as Blaxploitation, an unusual film about African-American social issues surfaced. Amidst such offerings as Shaft (1971), Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song (1971), and Dolemite (1975), appeared A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich (1978), a drama dealing with the pressures of adolescence and ghetto life through the eyes of a thirteen year old boy. Starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield, Hero tackles the battle of a young heroin addict, his struggle to get clean, and the impact of his difficulties on those around him. Based on the book of the same title by Alice Childress, the film was directed by Ralph Nelson. Childress, the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway, was also the first woman to win an OBIE (for Trouble in Mind, selected as the Best Off-Broadway Production of 1955-56). Nelson was known for films of a decidedly offbeat nature, like Charly (1968) and Lilies of the Field (1963), the latter nominated for Best Picture.
Producer Robert Radnitz was more commonly associated with lighter, animal-oriented family fare like A Dog of Flanders (1960) and Misty (1961), and best known for his work on Sounder (1972). The film, nominated for Best Picture, also featured the powerhouse performances of Tyson and Winfield each picking up a nomination for their roles. In Hero, Tyson plays the beleaguered mother and Winfield the well-intentioned but overcompensating stepfather; in Blacks in American Films and Television, author Donald Bogle describes the actor as, "perfectly modulated and thought-out, investing his working class hero with a poignant dignity and grace." Musing about the man, Tyson declared, "I have not worked with a more generous and more giving talent in the business." She recalled an incident after the release of Sounder when Winfield insisted on her receiving top billing, despite his contractual dibs on it: "I said, `You're insane. Your agent and manager negotiated a contract, and you get first billing.' And he just smiled and said, `When you see the movie, you'll understand why.' I don't know another human being in the business that would have done that, because billing is what we live for." The pair would reunite for the television mini-series King (1978), with Winfield in the title role of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Tyson as wife Coretta Scott King.
Tyson graduated from stage to television to film, with Sounder as her breakthrough success. It was a long way from her days as a typist with the Red Cross (a job reportedly left with the declaration, "I'm sure God didn't intend me to sit at a typewriter."), and Tyson soon established a reputation for undertaking roles with strong, positive characterizations. In her own words, "The choices of roles I made had to do with educating and entertaining. And as a result, I found myself working only every two to three years." Indeed, productions like Sounder, Hero, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) were veritable oases for Tyson during the Blaxploitation erawhere the women were angry, armed, and scantily clad. Her work in Pittman earned her two Emmys, one for Best Lead Actress and a special award for Actress of the Year. It helped to cement her reputation as "The Incorruptible Black Artist," and prompted legendary critic Pauline Kael to bestow the mantel of "the first great black heroine on the screen." In a recent interview with blackfilm.com, Tyson shared her method for selecting roles. "Well, my way of making the decision is one of two things: when I read a script, either my skin tingles or my stomach churns. It's that simple. If my skin tingles, I cannot wait to do it, and if my stomach turns, I know that I would never be able to do it, because I have that nausea in the pit of my gut. If I took the money, it would end up in the hands of psychiatrists."
Kevin Hooks has a supporting role as the neighborhood dealer, a reunion with Winfield and Tyson from Sounder, in which he played their son. In 2003, Hooks would direct a television remake of the film, with Winfield in a cameo role. Also appearing is Helen Martin, a founding member of the American Negro Theater (of which author Childress was a member), who found television success as the nosy neighbor on 227 (1985-90).
Rounding out the supporting cast is Glynn Turman, who began his career in TV's Peyton Place (1964-69) and would later support the next generation of African-American films with his work in The Inkwell (1994), How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), and Light It Up (1999).
Producer: Hal De Windt
Director: Ralph Nelson
Screenplay: Alice Childress, based on her novel
Cinematography: Frank Stanley
Editing:Fred A. Chulack
Music: Tom McIntosh
Cast: Cicely Tyson (Sweets), Paul Winfield (Butler), Larry B. Scott (Benjie), Helen Martin (Mrs. Bell), Kevin Hooks (Tiger), Glynn Turman (Nigeria), David Groh (Cohen).
by Eleanor Quin