Big Baller

Spike Lee hands off to a gridiron giant in 'Jim Brown: All-American'

Jim Brown: All-American
directed by Spike Lee
Walker Art Center

Spike Lee's documentary on the life of athlete-actor-activist Jim Brown opens on the image of its subject swaggering through a dark concrete passageway into a vast, sunlit sports arena. Visually, the shot evokes a fearless Roman gladiator stepping into the Coliseum, mythically immune to the peril that may greet him. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, the voice of a haggard blues man from the days of leather helmets and Jim Crow creaks out a droning lament for John Henry, the legendary folk hero who died with his hands still wrapped around a steel-driving sledge. It's an apt contrast: Brown's hulking figure appears ready for battle, yet his slow-motion stride suggests a black superman made weary by years of figurative hammer-swinging.

The first half of Jim Brown: All-American (which Lee and Brown will introduce at the Walker on Sunday) is dominated by firsthand testimonials to Brown's athletic supremacy. A chorus of former coaches, teammates, and journalists--plus Oliver Stone--oblige Lee in recounting the dazzling career of one of history's finest running backs, with remembrances ranging from the jovially fond to the simply awestruck. Admirably, the anecdotes are vivid and varied enough to keep even non-football fans engaged. Intermingled with the gridiron hyperbole is the tale of a young, black, fatherless male making his way from the segregated South to the more cautiously racist North, casting Brown--now 66--as a complicated man who has often defied but never ignored the adverse forces around him.

They got game: Jim Brown and Spike Lee
HBO
They got game: Jim Brown and Spike Lee

Lee, who idolized Brown as a kid (and, as a grown-up, directed him in He Got Game), doesn't veil his hero worship. Thus, through most of these 130 minutes, Brown must serve as his own harshest critic, fessing up openly to missteps and shortcomings as a spouse and father. It's only in the film's second half, when talk turns to Brown's screen career and personal pitfalls, that the voices grow slightly less reverential. While they leaven the argument that Brown forced Hollywood and its audience to confront and reconsider narrow black archetypes in the 1960s and '70s, his 100 Rifles costar Raquel Welch comes off as skeptical of his acting prowess and slightly uncomfortable with the memory of their provocative sex scene--part taboo-demolition and part racy exploitation. Still, most interviewees seem to agree with Lee that Brown's action-hero status was not only a coup for African-American actors, but also an ultra-macho and much-needed answer to the more mannered Sidney Poitier.

For younger viewers who know Brown only from dusty highlight reels and less insurgent films such as I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Lee also takes time to detail his hero's proactive political streak. Highlighting Brown's strides as an economic activist in the '60s and an anti-gang-violence tactician in the '90s, the film provides us with a deeper look at the shrewd, articulate psyche that's often obscured (or betrayed?) by Brown's famous physicality. One segment might have felt like an infomercial for the man's Amer-I-Can youth outreach program if not for the complete lack of preachy pretense or self-aggrandizement. And when one former gang member emphatically explains how Brown rescued him from a violent cycle of hate and retribution, it's not just lip service.

Numerous one-on-one interviews with Brown himself reveal a penchant for personal accountability. From macrosociology to his sexual proclivities, he's plainspoken about his motives, limitations, and sacrifices. That's why we share his discomfort with playing defense when Lee finally touches on the various charges (formal and informal) that have been lodged against him over the years, many of them by women. No jury has ever found Brown guilty of assault; he blames opportunistic cops for repeatedly putting him in the hot seat. As noted at the end of the film, he was recently found guilty of threats and vandalism after taking a shovel to his current wife's car. Sentenced to counseling and community service, the defiant Brown chose jail instead, and by the end of Lee's film, you understand why.

 
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