's new film chronicling the life and times of one of the most heralded and complicated sports figures of the century treats its subject with a reverence that surpasses even the director's portrait of Malcolm X
. An exhaustive account of every facet of Jim Brown's sports and show business careers, not to mention his troubled personal history, this video documentary occasionally lapses into the realm of self-importance, but is nonetheless mostly gripping throughout its overlong running time. Made for HBO Sports and due for cable broadcast later this year, "Jim Brown: All American" is now receiving its theatrical premiere at New York's Film Forum.
The opening segments of the film are the least impressive, including an extraneous sequence in which we see Brown giving a pre-Super Bowl pep talk to the Baltimore Ravens, and a scene shot on St. Simons Island in Georgia, where Brown grew up, in which he discusses his segregated childhood while pointing to the graves of various deceased ancestors. The focus then shifts to his high school sports career in a fairly affluent section of Long Island, N.Y., with his exploits beamingly described by various teammates and his beloved old coach. Terence Blanchard
's jazz score, similar to those in many previous films by the director, provides a suitably plaintive and emotive musical background.
The film naturally gathers steam when it reaches Brown's pro football career, when the descriptions of his exploits are well illustrated by archival footage documenting his extraordinary skills and iron-man stamina. The latter is demonstrated not only by the footage of his evading being tackled by scores of players, but also by the amazing statistic that during his nine-year career he missed only half a game.
His film career is discussed in rather grandiose terms, with the film's position being that Brown made revolutionary strides in redefining the image of the black male onscreen. While there is some truth to this -- his interracial sex scenes with Raquel Welch
and Stella Stevens were highly unusual for the time -- such films as "100 Rifles" and "Slaughter", clips of which are shown, hardly make the case convincing. The thesis is made even less credible by the commentary of such figures as historian Donald Bogle
, who, at least as edited here, seems to have a major preoccupation with black penises.
Also handled in extensive detail are Brown's aborted production company partnership with Richard Pryor
, his leadership role in the black community and his efforts to stop gang violence in Los Angeles through the founding of the Amer-I-Can organization.
Contrasting with his humanitarian efforts is his checkered personal history, including numerous arrests for assault. Although not shying away from the controversies, the film is clearly on Brown's side, letting him extensively tell his side of the story and including numerous exonerating interviews with his supposed victims, including the woman whom he was accused of throwing off his balcony and the current wife whose car he vandalized. A lengthy interview with one of his sons, who has had extensive difficulties with drugs and alcohol, makes clear that his emotional reticence, so useful on the football field, was less helpful in terms of his relationships with his children.
Lee's clearly admiring approach, typified by a climax in which we get to witness graphic video footage of the birth of Brown's latest child, occasionally gives the film the air more of a promotional video than a no-holds-barred cinematic examination.
JIM BROWN: ALL AMERICAN
A 40 Acres and a Mule release
Director-producer: Spike Lee
Executive producers: Ross Greenberg
, Rick Bernstein
Co-producers: Mike Ellis, Sam Pollard
Director of photography: Ellen Kuras
Editor: Sam Pollard
Music: Terence Blanchard
Running time -- 130 minutes
No MPAA rating