The greatest football player of all time, Jim Brown is the most intimidating, intelligent, and interesting person I've ever met. With a career that has spanned sports, film and politics, Brown is a complex man who has seen more and done more in his life than most people have ever dreamed of. But with such complexity comes rumors and confusion, things that fade from memory, and it can be difficult to get a solid picture of who Jim Brown really was and is. In Jim Brown: All-American, director Spike Lee looks set the record straight, and separate the myth of Jim Brown from the man.
Clocking in at a little over two hours long, Jim Brown: All-American is an epic film that traces the life of the famed football player, from his humble beginnings in Georgia, to his legendary performance on the high school, college, and professional playing field. Through a wealth of archival footage, Lee shows Brown in action on the gridiron as he bulldozes over his opponents, giving a clear understanding of what a phenomenal player he was. What the average person may not know, but what the film reveals, is that not only is Brown considered the greatest football player of all time, he was an even better lacrosse player, a sport he excelled at in college.
Jim Brown: All-American does not stop with Brown's athletic career. The film also looks at the work Brown did as a political activist, and the tremendous impact he had on the screen when he retired from football to pursue a career in acting. Staring with his work in films like Rio Conchos and The Dirty Dozen, Brown blazed a trail in Hollywood during the 1960s as the leading black action star.
Spike Lee goes a long way to dispel much of the mythology of Jim Brown. In some of the documentary's more candid moments, Brown's children talk about growing up in the shadow of a legendary man who as not always there as a father. Brown's son Kevin talks frankly about his drug problems, while Jim, Jr. talks about being Jim Brown, Jr. But what has to be one of the film's most surprising moments is when Brown talks about the infamous incident where he allegedly threw a woman off a second story balcony. Both Brown and the woman recount the incident – to which they were the only witnesses – and it is up to the audience to try and glean the truth about what really happened.
Jim Brown: All-American is, if nothing else, a fairly comprehensive documentary, especially given the complexity of Brown's life. Fans of the footballer will no doubt enjoy the first half of the film, although they may grow bored with the portions of the film that discuss the non-sports aspects of his life. Truth be told, everything in the film is interesting. The problem with the film, however, is that it drags at times. How anyone could make a documentary about Jim Brown that becomes boring at times is beyond me (I've met the man, and there's nothing boring about him). Ultimately, this is a testimony to the flaws inherent in Spike Lee's filmmaking. That the six-hour documentary Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story flows with more ease says something about Lee's film. If done right, Jim Brown: All-American could have been three or four times longer, and still remained compelling. But somehow Lee has made a film that will leave you looking at your watch, and feeling a bit thankful when it's over.
Jim Brown: All-American is presented in widescreen format. The documentary itself was shot on film, and the picture quality varies depending on the film stock and exposure. Much of the documentary is made up of old newsreel footage shot on both film and video. Considering the age of much of this footage, and the format on which it was shot, all the archival stuff looks great. Sure, much of the material is grainy and scratched, but just be thankful for the fact that you get to see old footage of Jim Brown not only playing football, but lacrosse as well (not to mention his first ever screen test for Rio Conchos).
There is a moment at the end of Chapter 9 that the disc either skips, or the film is poorly edited, as the talking head comment being made is cut short. The result is an awkward transition in the documentary, that is could easily be bad authoring or inept filmmaking.
Jim Brown: All-American is presented in Dolby Surround Sound. There's nothing overly exciting about the audio, except the fact that the vast collection of archival footage sounds as clear as it does.
The only extra on Jim Brown: All-American is an audio commentary by director Spike Lee. Occasionally, Lee has something interesting to say, either dropping some bit of information not in the film, or adding his two cents to whatever's being talked about, but for the most part Lee comes up short in the profundity department. With long bouts of silence that seem to last for minutes, Lee more often than not states the obvious, only reiterating what's already being said on film.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]