When football great Jim Brown abruptly quit the Cleveland Browns before the 1966 season, he did what so many sports stars — MJ, Olajuwon, Warren Moon — have failed to do. It’s not just that he won an NFL championship and a couple of MVP awards and was one of the best running backs of all time. It’s that Jim Brown went out on top.
His life since his unilateral domination of the football field (and other athletic endeavors — Brown played multiple sports in high school and college, and is enshrined in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame) has been almost as successful, ranging from movie star to outspoken activist. Now he’s the subject of a Spike Lee documentary, Jim Brown: All American, a film that seeks to take ESPN’s “SportsCentury” to the next level.
Make no mistake — this is not 4 Little Girls. The problem here is that Lee is so much better than ESPN, and it’s almost as if he plays down to the fact that Jim Brown was actually made for HBO Sports and will air on the cable network in a few months. We can talk till we’re blue in the face about how Brown busted stereotypes and flouted racial mores, was one of the progenitors and stars of blaxploitation films, and has devoted himself to helping prison inmates better themselves, but the fact of the matter is that this one man is never going to pack the emotional punch of Lee’s Oscar-winning Girls.
But this is an episode of “SportsCentury,” or “Biography,” or “E! True Hollywood Story” (yes, Mr. Brown is all things to all people; just pick your flavor), super-sized and missing the annoying commercials inserted every five minutes to maximize profit. What elevates it is so subtle and ingrained in the film that it’s barely noticeable: This is a compelling documentary because of Lee’s ability to draw out the people on the other side of the camera.
But what really makes Jim Brown: All American is the man himself. Even now, in his late 60s, Brown cuts an imposing figure, and his voice is strong and sure. Lee fleshes out the retrospective with plenty of archival footage (watch for a hilarious, all-too-brief clip from “Soul Train”), and to see Brown on the field, slipping in and out of the grasp of would-be tacklers with criminal ease, is to understand why it’s an insult to say his name in the same breath as our beloved Barry’s. The section of the film dealing with his Hollywood career is equally fascinating — with Brown, dripping with animal magnetism and self-confidence, being touted as the anti-Poitier as he stars in such movies as The Dirty Dozen, Ice Station Zebra and Slaughter.
Brown’s life is not all sweet triumph, though, and Lee’s portrait of the man, while presenting the negative along with the positive, feels a tad too adulatory to be truly balanced. There’s nothing great, or even good, about Brown’s various arrests related to violence against women. (Brown denies them all, and while some of the denials may be true, he still spent several months earlier this year incarcerated for breaking the windows in his wife’s car during a fight — an act both he and she blame on her sniping at him. Truth or victim?) Lee interviews Brown, Brown’s family, friends, and even the girlfriend at the center of one of the strangest charges against him — she says he pushed her off a balcony; he says she jumped. It’s one of the only moments in the movie when an interviewee dares to speak against Brown, and even she, decades after the incident, still lacks conviction.
Jim Brown: All American runs long (and feels it) at over two hours, but it’s not really feasible to cover the many phases of Brown’s life in a shorter amount of time. Lee ties everything in Brown’s character and exploits to his repeatedly groundbreaking roles as an African-American in sport, in film and in social activism.
Brown, like all of us, has demons (however minimized by Lee’s sugarcoated portrayal), but his overall achievements and the cohesive picture they create of a man at the forefront of his people’s battle for respect, power and the ability to make a difference are what ring most true in the film.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Saturday at 2 p.m., followed by an in-person Q&A with Jim Brown and producer-director Spike Lee. Call 313-833-4005 for tickets.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.