Jim Brown began a six-month jail sentence this month for bashing his wife’s car windows with a shovel in 1999.
You’ll hear a little bit about that in Spike Lee’s documentary “Jim Brown: All-American.” But you won’t gain an understanding of the volatility and rage that drove Brown to such destruction.
Lee paints an unabashedly flattering portrait of one of the greatest running backs in football history, who turned his athletic fame into a film career, followed by social activism.
The director mixes highlights from the football field and the silver screen with interviews from former teammates, sports journalists and co-stars, all of whom sing his praises. And they should; at 66, Brown’s been a charismatic, revolutionary cultural figure for nearly half a century.
But he touches only briefly on the ugly parts of Brown’s personality — including a history of violence against women and a detachment from his children — without delving into their origins.
Lee begins with Brown’s childhood as one of the few blacks in Manhasset, N.Y., where he moved at age 8 when his mother took a job there as a domestic.
Even as a sophomore at Manhasset High School in 1951, Brown obviously was going to be one of the best athletes the school had even seen, according to his football coach, Ed Walsh.
While Brown also excelled at basketball, golf and tennis, his strongest sport was lacrosse, which he played along with football at Syracuse University.
Walsh recalls an early example of the racism Brown endured: The Syracuse football coach was reluctant to take Brown because he didn’t want any more blacks on the team, and agreed to accept him only if Walsh would help him enforce 10 rules, one of which barred Brown from dating white girls.
As would become his style, Brown did what he wanted to do. He ended up at Syracuse, where he proudly flaunted his white girlfriend at practice.
(Lee’s method for recounting this time in Brown’s life is awkward and contrived, having him meet his aging former lacrosse teammates on the Syracuse field to toss the ball around.)
Easily, the most exciting parts of the movie are the highlights from Brown’s nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns, from 1957-65. When he retired, no player had run for as many yards (12,312) or scored more touchdowns (126) or rushing touchdowns (106), which put him in the Hall of Fame.
Over and over, he floats across the field for touchdowns — four or five defenders can’t take him down. Even though he was big for a running back at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, he made it look effortless.
In a briskly paced sequence, Brown demonstrates how he used his left arm as a club to fight off would-be tacklers, and describes how he wasn’t shy about showing off for the competition.
“I might stride a little bit in front of them,” he says with a smile, “let ’em see what they gotta look out for.”
That attitude drew the attention of a Hollywood agent, who thought he’d be perfect for action films. Brown was a revolutionary presence on the screen — a virile, almost threatening black man, in contrast to the sophisticated characters Sidney Poitier played. And in movies like the 1969 Western ”100 Rifles,” he did something previously unheard of — an interracial love scene (with Raquel Welch).
Having already helped other blacks start businesses, Brown established the Amer-I-Can Foundation in 1988 to help troubled young people, and he met with gang members after the Los Angeles riots, hoping to foster peace.
But during these years, he also was arrested repeatedly on suspicion of assaulting women; in 1985, O.J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran defended him against a rape accusation.
One of the most infamous incidents involved a girlfriend, Eva Marie Bohn-Chin, whom he may have pushed off a second-floor balcony in 1968 — or she may have jumped, depending on whom you ask. Lee’s he said-she said account offers no concrete answers.
After gathering raves from Welch and Oliver Stone, Art Modell and Hank Aaron, Lee provides the only remotely negative comments toward the end of the movie, from Brown’s adult children.
Kevin Brown, a recovering drug addict, says his father never embraced him as a child, and hugged him for the first time only recently. Daughter Kim says her dad never had time to attend her ballet recitals, but she understood because he was so busy. And Jim Brown Jr. describes the pressure of carrying his father’s name — which he says pushed him away from football and toward basketball.
Perhaps we’re supposed to surmise that he was distant because of his experience with his own parents; he and his father had what he called a “verbal pact,” that his father wouldn’t be part of his life, and his mother kicked him out of the house in high school when he disapproved of her dating.
Despite the glossy treatment, Lee proves again that he’s a talented storyteller, cramming nearly 50 years of momentous moments into a documentary that, at over two hours, feels neither rushed nor slight.
“Jim Brown: All-American,” an HBO Sports release, is not rated. Running time: 130 minutes. Three stars (out of four).