Jim Brown: All-American (2002) 40 Acres & A Mule / Film Forum
1 hr. 70 mins.
Starring: Jim Brown
Directed by: Spike Lee

Jim Brown: All-American



Photo: Film Forum

If one were to log an impressive and elite listing of the amazing black athletes ever to make an impact for the last century in the way they transcended their respective sport, you could definitely have an outstanding array of selections to choose from: Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Hank Aaron, Wilma Rudolph, Bill Russell, Tiger Woods, Joe Louis, Serena and Venus Williams...the possibilities are endless. But no "greatest list of athletes" club (regardless of race, creed, or color) could ever be considered legitimate without the inclusion of one of American football's greatest commodities - the legendary Cleveland Brown's record-breaking, dynamic rusher Jim Brown.

In Spike Lee's earnest but gently spotty soul-searching documentary "Jim Brown: All-American", he examines the larger-than-life controversial ex-athlete, B-movie actor, and social activist. What Lee does so marvelously compelling is present Brown as a catalyst for the struggle of black manhood in restrictive and chaotic America; he acknowledges Brown's assigned burden as an entertainment-oriented American icon who was outspoken and commanded a strong presence that was refreshingly embraced by some of disenfranchised black America while ominously being observed by skeptical and skittish white America from a safe distance. Brown was elusive and unpredictable, much like his fleeting and fast-footed ways in his nine glorious seasons on the punishing battleground known as the football field. Unlike some other black performers (whether they represented interests in sports, music, movies, or televsion) who insisted on playing it "safe" and not ruffling the feathers of a hostile white world that doted on them exclusively, Brown basically stuck his neck out and did his thing and triumphed in a society that couldn't contain him or his drive to be his own man in his own ebony skin.

There are those who might feel that Lee doesn't harp enough on the degradation of Jim Brown's downspiral into a noted lawbreaking abyss. The question remains: why should he? Brown, just like everybody else on the planet, is no absolute saint and whereas his flirtation with some noted law violations are an inviting cause to tear down the fascinating study of this complicated individual, Lee wisely ensures that Brown's image is neutrally targeted. Sure, Brown's personal troubles are fodder for discrediting him as a credible subject matter, but Lee doesn't let him completely off the hook as some of his lifelong conflicts are part of his angst, his complexing makeup. That's a given in its own right. Besides, the focus is about looking at Brown as a black role model - or just plain ole' ROLE MODEL period - and how this resilient and obstinate soul challenged the limited conventions that were foreign to many of his African-American male contemporaries.

At first, there is a slow build-up regarding Brown's humble beginnings in reference to his birthplace in rural Georgia then his eventual upbringing in rough-and-tumble streets of New York. But when Lee introduces a series of clips that chronicle Brown's eye-popping athleticism from the high school ranks to his hectic but durable days at Syracuse University to the exciting thills of what would be a decade-long mesmerizing pro football career with the Cleveland Browns, then the documentary starts to unfold with noteworthy revelations. We hear enthusiastically from countless old coaches, former teammates, and starry-eyed sportswriters who graciously share their recollections of Jim Brown memories and still shiver at this man's magnetic accomplishments years and years after the fact.

Joyously invigorating are the insights regarding Brown's lightweight movie career and his introduction into such promising fare as being part of director Robert Aldrich's revered military drama "The Dirty Dozen". The Hollywood experience becomes more titillating and scathing for Brown when he finds himself cozing up to "white sex goddess" Rachel Welch in the popular tepid western "100 Rifles" at a time when it wasn't exactly the safest thing for an arrogant and charismatic black studmuffin to do in cinema--intimately manhandle a desirable white woman. Soon, Brown would find himself being exploited as the resident black stud in a lot of faceless action genres that would make Mandingo enthusiasts giddy with envy. At this point, utilizing Brown in pointless and repetitive vehicles that wanted to take advantage of his anointed "black buck" persona was almost as addictive as seeing him strong arm opponents who tried to tackle his massive, muscle-bound frame heading toward the goal line.

There are a lot of redemptive forethought behind "Jim Brown: All-American" that tries to tie up certain pieces about this jigsaw-of-a-human being. Lee cleverly doesn't profess to wrapping up Jim Brown in a neatly-presented package because it's unrealistic and futile to do so. Brown is merely the antithesis of what a complete heroic figure should be and that in its own right is a riveting concept. Brown is a walking conglormeration of a misguided soulful spirit trying to fight the demons within himself and within the society that surrounds him. He's lived an energetic and animated life doused with fame, temptation, and weighed down by personal frustrating foreplay.

Whether previously promoting the call for unity and pride regarding his people in the turbulent '60's through the Negro Economic Union to carrying out his active agenda for addressing the support of an anti-gang lifestyle amongst impovished youths today, Jim Brown - a tainted talent who never maintained a false face as a choirboy but definitely deserves his share of scrutiny - continues to try and make a difference despite his own closet filled with scary skeleton bones. For the 65-year old Brown, the long road has not been a pretty sight: scattered sexual explorations, various domestic violence incidents, committing aimless law-bending name it and Brown has probably experienced it in his stormy existence.

"Jim Brown: All-American is not a flawless documentary by any means and it certainly doesn't answer all the questions it sometimes raises. Consequently, you find yourself wondering if Lee has come full-circle with his tormented subject matter. This is an occasionally sketchy but nevertheless gripping portrait of Jim Brown, a celebrated wonder in the spotlight of the American pop culture psyche but a complete mystery to his own messy, unsettling psychological tendencies.

Click here to comment on this review or post your own thoughts.

Frank Ochieng


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