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“Everybody knew the run was coming. Yet nobody could stop Jim Brown.”
DVD ReviewFrom strictly a football standpoint, there are things about Jim Brown that remain impossible to fathom. 5.2 yards per carry? In today’s world of professional sports, that would earn him, if not an A-Rod-sized contract, at least a Manning-sized one. And walking away from the game after 9 seasons, at age 29, Barry Sanders’ early retirement is almost as mysterious, and much less so is the recent decision by Ricky Williams not to report to Dolphins camp; the suspension for drug use was just waiting to happen. But athletics may not be even the most important part of Brown’s legacy—his success in Hollywood is crucial for a number of reasons, and in recent decades he’s taken on problems that other public figures, especially politicians, studiously avoided, chiefly gang violence. He’s no saint, either, though, as charges of domestic violence have dogged him for years.
All of which makes him a fine candidate to be profiled in a documentary film, and Spike Lee has made a pretty good one here. The film probably would not have been possible without Brown’s participation, and the candor with which his friends, family and colleagues speak is no doubt due in large measure to Lee having Brown’s imprimatur. Brown’s is a messy life, with more than its share of contradictions; if Lee’s portrait isn’t a searing or an exhaustive one, it’s still a fair look at the man and his life, interesting especially for those of us who came of age long after Brown’s playing days.
Brown was raised in Georgia by his great-grandmother; he barely knew his father, and his mother worked in New York as a domestic. Lee traces Brown’s life from Southern poverty to high school glory on Long Island to Syracuse University; at the time, Brown was not only the best football player in America, but the best lacrosse player, too. (He may be the all-time best in both, in fact.) And race was very much an issue: the coaching staff at Syracuse wanted Brown to vow never to date white women. (He refused to take any such pledge, and he was backed up by his surrogate father and high school coach.) These were the 1950s, after Brown versus Board of Education, but long before the civil rights movement; a magnetic figure, an athletic force, for many cowering whites Jim Brown must have been the black man of their nightmares.
Lee leads us through Brown’s NFL career as well, playing for Cleveland; the footage from the day, even with the old-style John Facenda narration, still shows Brown as an extraordinary player, powerful, quick, smart, unstoppable. But more important, even in his playing days, Brown was focusing on the necessity of black economic empowerment, what he saw as the indispensable corollary of the civil rights movement. Brown used his celebrity to highlight these issues, teaming up with some of the other brightest lights in athletics at the time, including Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali. (Brown, in fact, organized a group of athletes to profess their support for Ali’s conversion to Islam and his refusal to serve in the U.S. military.)
One reason Brown left the gridiron relatively early is because Hollywood came calling, and Lee successfully makes the case the Jim Brown was the vital doppelganger figure to Sidney Poitier. Poitier was well mannered, safe; Brown was rugged, dangerous, frankly sexual. One interviewee calls him the “black John Wayne,” and that may be overstating it; but it was definitely a breakthrough to see him in roles that had nothing to do with his race, or to see him in sexual relationships with white women. (One academic seems to be gunning for tenure by being provocative; he likes to refer to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? as Fear of a Black Penis. Yeah, $30,000 a year for tuition for this, that’s right.)
There are the dark times, too—the ill-conceived business partnership with Richard Pryor, and the charges of domestic violence. There’s a suggestion that the authorities have it in for Brown; he’s got his FBI file, via an FOIA request, and Johnnie Cochran defended him at least once. On the other hand, there’s a long and serious discussion as to whether or not Jim Brown threw a woman off of a balcony. Lee doesn’t whitewash this aspect of Brown’s life, but he doesn’t lay out an exhaustive narrative, either; you may find yourself straining your memory for Larry King shows from years back, or are more likely just to reserve judgment.
Finally, it’s Jim Brown the father, talking frankly about family life: Jim Brown Jr. played college basketball, in part to avoid his father’s shadow; Brown’s son Kevin is candid about his drug addiction, and the tough love from his old man. The portrait ends on a hopeful note, with Brown and his new wife and their new baby, a boy, born in November 2001. Which means it’s just another dozen years or so until the college recruiters come calling.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: A clean transfer, and special mention is due to whoever tracked down all the archival footage, especially of Brown’s playing days; these clips look as good as or better than just about anything else from the period.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: Lee and his sound editors occasionally overdo it with the effects, layering in lots of bells and whistles, especially with the football highlights; also, the musical scoring is occasionally a bit too intrusive. But all the interviewees can be made out just fine.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Spike Lee
Extras Review: Spike Lee sits for a commentary track that’s sporadically interesting; funnily enough, though he’s a filmmaker, Lee is much better on sports than he is on movies. He talks about meeting Brown (while working on He Got Game) and the genesis of the project; he screened the picture at Brown’s alma mater, during Carmelo Anthony’s magical freshman year; and he lets loose on continuing racial injustices in sports. He’s rightly outraged, for instance, about the dearth of African-American coaches in the SEC; since Lee recorded his track, Sylvester Croom has been hired at Mississippi State, but that’s only the smallest step in the right direction. After an hour or so, Lee doesn’t have much left to say, and randomly free associates.
Extras Grade: C+
Final CommentsA solid portrait of maybe the best football player of all time, giving a fair hearing to his life and times on the field, on the screen, and in the public arena.
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