“Always get up slow,” Jim Brown advises in Spike Lee’s two hour-plus documentary about the legendary running back, actor and activist, describing how he would arise from a football pile-up so that no one could tell if he was hurt. “If you come to hurt me, and you cannot hurt me, I have won.” As a graphic paradigm for surviving both celebrity and racism in America, this stoicism acquires unexpected dimensions, particularly in a man as aware and articulate as Brown. Opening for a limited run at New York’s Film Forum before it airs in an abridged 90-minute version on HBO Sports in December, Lee’s homage to his lifelong hero is a model of cohesion and clarity as long as it’s dealing with Brown’s exemplary public achievements. However, pic quickly becomes mired in tedium and confusion when it turns to Brown’s scandal-ridden private life.
Lee invites Brown to ringmaster his own life story as he revisits the scenes of his childhood. Herding his assorted children and grandchildren in stiff “family portrait” formations around Georgia’s St. Simon’s Island, Brown expounds on the upside of segregation, the sense of belonging and unquestioned acceptance afforded by an all-black community.
Then it’s on to the affluent white Long Island enclave of Manhasset, and an orgy of mutual admiration between ex-high school coach Ed Walsh and Brown as they re-create the birth of a legend. The film really finds its rhythm here, alternating between talking heads and archival images. Interviews shot in startlingly off-center, compelling, tight, in-your-face closeup recount how Brown, a natural all-around athlete (he was offered pro-basketball and pro-baseball contracts and inducted into the lacrosse Hall of Fame), forever changed the game of football, while crisp black-and-white or faded color footage show Brown’s incredible runs down the gridiron.Lee opts to use no voiceover narration, and, though there are a goodly number of theme-based montages and neat segues, Lee often deliberately avoids setups. That’s particularly true of his treatment of Brown’s frequent, highly successful forays into community activism via black economic development projects. A montage of black and Chicano youths intoning a litany of gang names that resonate like rap poetry introduce impassioned testimonials about how Brown’s personal intervention and creation of Amer-I-Can turned their lives around.
Brown, whose presence is ubiquitous in the first third of the pic, virtually disappears, save for excerpted film clips, during the section devoted to his Hollywood career. Movie directors, critics and co-stars rush in to fill the void.Tellingly, the only real violence Spike Lee shows is an extended clip from “Slaughter,” wherein a character played by Rip Torn savagely backhands, kicks and gut-punches the Stella Stevens character for sleeping with Brown: This in a docu dedicated to a man who engaged in a violent sport, played extremely violent kickass roles onscreen and was repeatedly accused of violence against women in his private life. (Brown is currently serving a jail sentence in California for a 1999 incident in which he smashed the windows of his wife’s car.)
While the first two-thirds of “Jim Brown: All American” energetically chronicle Brown’s quest to impose his own image of indomitable black masculinity on sports, film and business, the last third comes off as an attenuated, defensive downer. Apparently structured to refute the sensationalistic news-breaking, police-blotter image of Brown, the final section casts Lee in the unenviable role of apologist. To a large extent, the problem may stem less from Lee’s obvious advocacy than from the biopic genre itself, which dictates a built-in tell-all expectation of shame and disaster that ultimately wins out over Lee’s initially subtler scenario.
Lensing by Ellen Kuras is top-notch and arresting, while Terry Blanchard’s original jazz score remains deferentially low-key. And at 66, Brown’s on-camera presence possesses all the ease and warmth that was so signally lacking in his Hollywood action heyday.