Thursday, October 07, 2004

Jim Brown: All-American


In the Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant each man feels a different part of the animal. Understandably, this leads to their varying perceptions of what an elephant is.

A group of people need not be blind to hold diverging views of who they think Jim Brown is. He’s the Cleveland Browns running back and all-time NFL great who hung up his cleats while still in his prime. He’s the action star who appeared in THE DIRTY DOZEN and THREE THE HARD WAY. He’s an activist in the African-American community who founded the Amer-I-Can Foundation. He’s a controversial figure whose history with women has led to brushes with the law, including accusations of throwing a girlfriend over a balcony and raping a woman.

Spike Lee’s HBO documentary JIM BROWN: ALL-AMERICAN looks at the different facets of this polarizing man. Lee traces a familiar biographical arc, going to Brown’s birthplace of St. Simon’s Island, documenting his rise in amateur and professional football, and concluding with his post-NFL life.

Lee, a well-documented sports fan, assembles the football section with gusto. Plays are broken down so that even non-fans can appreciate what Brown accomplished on the field. The excellent use of spot shadowing helps the untrained eye follow how plays are executed.

The energy employed in showing Brown’s athletic achievements doesn’t carry over to the rest of the film, though. Usually Lee is a dynamic filmmaker, but whether it’s the documentary format or his admiration for his subject, he seems to be restraining his style rather than ratcheting up the political and social elements. JIM BROWN: ALL-AMERICAN is a staid film. Considering the provocative material, it’s an approach least expected, especially from this director.

Throughout his career Lee has been criticized for his portrayal of women. He isn’t doing himself any favors when it comes to how he handles Brown’s rocky history with women. While one of the last sections addresses the more notable incidents, including his wife Monique’s call to the police in 1999 and an accusation thirty years earlier of throwing his girlfriend over a balcony, there’s a lingering sense that we’re getting skewed versions of the truth. Most bothersome is that the women accept the blame. His wife even suggests that Brown was the victim. In separating the alleged balcony toss from the film’s mostly linear timeline, the impression is that in delaying troublesome revelations it is hoped we will already like Brown enough to forgive his transgressions. Treating the incidents with kid gloves allows JIM BROWN: ALL-AMERICAN to fit into the encomium template, but a more forthright approach is demanded.

HBO Video presents JIM BROWN: ALL-AMERICAN in its original 1.85: aspect ratio. The rich colors and image’s texture are nicely reproduced in this anamorphic transfer. Even the old game film from Brown’s college and pro days looks excellent. The Dolby Digital 2.0 surround soundtrack gets the job done in its clean presentation of the many interview soundbites. Sound effects have been added to give the archival footage more punch, a technique that calls attention to itself in an otherwise naturalistic film. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.

The DVD cover calls this a director’s cut, a term in the DVD age that has been so grossly overused that it has almost lost any value. The DVD has a running time of 132 minutes. The Internet Movie Database entry lists the film’s duration as 140 minutes. Considering that Lee didn’t seem very picky about what he included in the DVD version, I can’t imagine that eight minutes were deleted from the cable telecast; however, assuming faulty information isn’t on IMDB, this may be one of those rare occasions where a director’s cut is shorter than the original.

The lone supplement is a Spike Lee audio commentary. Whether you agree with Lee or not, it stands to reason that it is worth hearing what an important director has to say. Not this time. This is a dry commentary track with silent stretches, particularly during the part touching on Brown’s domestic violence charges. Lee claims that he is letting two people tell their story and allowing us to decide, but it doesn’t strike me as being that simple.

Grade: C

(This review was previously published on

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