HBO // 2002 // 132 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // September 9th, 2004
"It's tough to be a black hero" -- tagline, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka
Nobody wants to mess with Jim Brown. Not on the football field, not on the L.A. gang circuit, not on a Hollywood set, and certainly not in a DVD review. Dude has a bad reputation and the physical presence to match -- legs that laugh at physics, shoulders large enough to give Joan Crawford the willies, and a glare that can pierce steel. Messing with Jim Brown seems like a sure way to end up with a mouthful of artificial turf like a rookie linebacker.
This lengthy biopic of Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown is one of acclaimed director Spike Lee's more recent joints, an interesting but flawed documentary that dispels Brown's tough public persona by focusing on his considerable contributions to the African-American community. Just like the trials faced by other groundbreaking public figures like Sammy Davis Jr. and Jackie Robinson, this film details how Brown blocked racism's unforgiving tackles on the field and in film as he broke down barriers and invested both time and money for the betterment of African-Americans everywhere.
Jim Brown: All-American traces Jim Brown's life from his beginnings in rural Georgia through his stellar high school sports career where he excelled at football, basketball, and lacrosse. Brown's first encounter with racial prejudice occurred during his college football days at Syracuse University, a hindrance that would dog him well into his pro career with the Cleveland Browns. Brown fought back by establishing the Negro Industrial Economic Union to encourage and foster black-owned businesses, the first organization of its kind. After an impressive nine seasons in the NFL, Brown decided to make the leap to film, later joining forces with Richard Pryor to found the ill-fated Indigo Films, a company created to help fund African-American film projects. In the late 1980s, Brown reacted to the violent gang warfare in Los Angeles by launching "Amer-I-Can," a skills and self esteem program directed towards gang members and prison inmates that is still in use today.
Although only the first half of the film is concerned with Brown's sports achievements, it's easily the most enjoyable part of Lee's documentary. Fantastic vintage footage of Brown dancing, floating, and spilling into the end zone is dissected and elaborated on by Brown and an army of peers and sports historians, who rightly confirm Brown as one of the greatest, most talented football players ever to take up the sport. Brown's story about how looming racism almost forced him to quit, and his challenges in even getting onto the field to play in the first place, would make a fine documentary film on its own.
By the halfway point, the film starts to have trouble keeping the momentum up, and Jim Brown: All-American suddenly becomes far more interesting for what it leaves out rather than for what it includes. Although Brown's filmography trumps his sports career in terms of length, curiously, Lee spends little time looking at this area of his life. The ex-ballplayer's time in Hollywood is only used to show how Brown broke down stereotypes by starring with white female love interests, such as his forceful sex scene with Raquel Welch in 100 Rifles. Brown used his clout in the 1970s to gain a new, younger fan base as a black film icon in films like The Slams and Black Gunn, but Lee looks at only one film from Brown's blaxploitation phase, Slaughter, because it also includes an interracial relationship. Discounting some of the more obvious embarrassments on Brown's résumé (One Down, Two to Go, anyone?) there are still many odd omissions, including his memorable role of Fireball in The Running Man or his self-parodying turns in Mars Attacks! and I'm Gonna Git You Sucka.
Likewise, the film has taken quite a bit of heat for glossing over Brown's past troubles with the law and his alleged history of domestic abuse. Lee does spend some time on these topics, but only addresses certain incidents that are strongly refuted, and Brown himself vaguely suggests that he has been targeted by police because of his political beliefs. Regardless, hints of Brown's relationship with violence crop up in unexpected places. In his discussion about the lure of football, Brown also offers a slightly disturbing reduction of the male psyche to "ass kicking" and "vicarious ass kicking." In addition to some none-too-flattering comments about his acting talents, Raquel Welch claims that Brown has not an ounce of "femininity" in him, as Lee cuts to a scene from 100 Rifles that has him roughly pushing her against a wall.
Presented in widescreen, Jim Brown: All American has crisp colors and beautiful cinematography, especially in the early scenes of Brown's hometown. Lee has a strange penchant for casting shadows over the faces of many of his subjects, but black levels are strong and this doesn't detract too much. The wealth of included vintage footage also looks surprisingly good for its age. The Dolby Surround soundtrack channels some of the music out the sides for an ambient effect, but as with most dialogue-driven documentaries, a stereo track would have sufficed. Still, it sounds quite good, with no distortions or sound artifacts of any kind. The sole extra on the disc is Lee's commentary track, which proves boring and, like his film, too lengthy. Lee discusses more details about Brown's life and the making of the film. Although it would have probably proved redundant with the material on the screen, it might have been interesting to hear the director interviewing Brown on this track, since Lee remains almost totally invisible during the film.
When it comes down to it, Spike Lee's Jim Brown: All American is meant to be a life-spanning highlight reel that goes further than the football field. In drawing attention to the accomplishments of the actor, the activist, and the man, the film is ultimately successful, if slightly unbalanced. Clocking in at well over two hours, I'd normally recommend Jim Brown: All American for fans only, but like I said, nobody in their right mind messes with Jim Brown. You better look out for this disc before the man demonstrates some of that ass kicking on you.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary with Spike Lee