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Jim Brown: All American

Football great, B-movie star, social activist, absentee father, lawbreaker—Jim Brown has run the gamut of 20th century American celebrity. Now, as the subject of Spike Lee's latest foray into the world of documentary, Brown has the chance to tell the story of his life.

The trouble is, for all his talents, Lee struggles with the documentary format, and as
interesting as Jim Brown: All American is, the film lacks focus. Lee's obvious reverence for his subject ends up hurting any claim he can make for objectivity, making the film look more like a lightweight PR piece than a serious look into the nature of the man. We begin with a visit to remote St. Simon's Island, Georgia, where Brown, surrounded by his children, talks about growing up in such an isolated and relatively autonomous place surrounded by strong black role models. It's a moving start, and Brown says all the right things in talking about the importance of community and family. It isn't until later in the film that we discover that the scene misrepresents the truth, as Brown doesn't exactly practice what he preaches when it comes to familial responsibility. Also, Brown didn't really grow up in Georgia. As a young boy, he moved to the borderline upper middle class Manhasset, Long Island, with his mother, a housekeeper, where he had his first taste of being the strongest, the fastest and the best at any sport he picked up. Lee then skims over Brown's first brush with racism at Syracuse University and his obvious regard for his own skills. But Brown's just getting warmed up.

Spending quite a bit of time discussing his record-smashing nine years with the Cleveland Browns, Lee talks to former coaches, teammates and sportswriters about his single-minded tenacity. This is where Lee's love affair with Brown becomes most
evident, and facts begin to get lost. We never hear from Brown's first wife (with whom he had three children), but we are given brief snipets from his two grown sons who admit that dad was never really around. Brown's carefully constructed public image takes a bit of a hit here, as his addict son Kevin talks about how dad wouldn't help him with his substance-abuse problems, as he was too busy partying with Hollywood bigwigs and setting up programs to help troubled kids. For his part, Brown doesn't talk about his failures as a father, and brushes off his own paternal shortcomings with disarming ease. Physician, heal thyself.

Brown's film career as an actor in the first round of Blacksploitation films receives the soft glove treatment as well. Although he was the first sexualized (although somewhat violently so) black character to star in American film, one wonders how duds like 100 Rifles and Slaughter fit in with the overall picture Lee weaves of Brown as a champion of social justice. At least, not from the excerpted scene in which Brown smacks two white women's heads together. Brown doesn't seem to understand, as Lee must, that he was probably little more than a token recognizable black face trotted out in low budget smash 'em up flicks and westerns. Brown's work as an activist is difficult to assail, however. Establishing the Negro Economic Union in the 60's with fellow black sports stars and his current leadership in the anti-gang Amer-i-can program is quite honorable, and he deserves full credit for the hard work and personal sacrifices he has made in the name of equality and peace.

While his work in the social arena is admirable, Brown's history of violent assaults (including a disputed case where he supposedly threw a woman off a balcony in the early 70's) is troubling. He is currently about to serve a short jail sentence for refusing to perform community service after smashing his wife's car up with a shovel. For all his bluster about being a man and kicking ass, it becomes evident that Lee misses the essential aspect of Jim Brown's character—that in the end he's just like the rest of us. Despite his awe at his own power and self-control, Brown's own manhood is a work in progress. At heart, he's a product of the hero-worship and marketing of the machine of 20th century America, and in that he is truly All-American.

-- Paul McLeary


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