In one of the niftiest and most enlightening sequences of Jim Brown: All-American, a documentary portrait directed by Spike Lee, the 65-year-old Brown, jocular and twinkly-eyed in an African kufi, demonstrates how he used to strong-arm any tackler who got in his way. Over and over, Brown thrusts his fist forward, stabbing it into the air, turning it into a ramrod of force. This may not, for a football player, seem like a particularly violent maneuver, but then Lee intercuts clips of Brown in his 1960s glory days as the superstar of the Cleveland Browns. We watch Brown, as nimble as Ali or Michael Jordan, spinning and dancing down the field, reading a broken defense as if he were surveying it from the air. All the while, he wields that forearm like a bruiser’s homicidal brickbat.
”Jim Brown: All-American” relives Brown’s gridiron triumphs with vividness and excitement, and Lee’s achievement extends to his supple understanding of the role that Brown played in American culture as an athlete, a movie star, and an image of black indomitability. He first appeared on the big screen in the mid-’60s, his career catapulted to mainstream viability by ”The Dirty Dozen” (1967). Yet the very aspect of his presence that was so captivating – the sexual charisma that made him far more threatening to white America than Sidney Poitier – was at once exploited and feared by Hollywood. There’s a funny and telling sequence in which Raquel Welch recalls the filming of their semi-kinky, awkwardly staged bedroom scene in ”100 Rifles.” You have to wonder: In 1969, was it easier to get away with an on-screen coupling like this one than it would be today? When was the last time you saw Will Smith in a love scene with a white costar?
Lee has an incisive grasp of the provocation that Jim Brown represented. He’s on shakier ground, however, when it comes to showcasing Brown in all his personal complexity and controversy. Jim Brown teases us with intimations of its subject’s messy private life – his sexual explorations, the accusations of domestic violence that he has denied for decades. Yet the film’s presentation of these issues is blurry and compartmentalized (the question of whether one former girlfriend fell or was pushed by Brown from a balcony is treated as a ”Rashomon” event), and so Lee, in what appears to be a downplaying of his hero’s more troubling side, misses the opportunity to bring Jim Brown into full focus. From what we can tell, Brown was a dancer, all right, in life as well as on the field – a dancer with a powerful forearm, one that Lee covers in protective padding.