On the commentary track of Jim Brown: All-American, director and producer Spike Lee notes with exasperation that the film's subject is known primarily for doing two things: being the greatest football player of all time and allegedly throwing a woman off a balcony. To Lee, however, he remains as remarkable for what he did off the field as what he accomplished on it. In his adoring biography Jim Brown: All-American, Lee argues that Brown represented a revolutionary new kind of black celebrity: cocky, brash, overtly sexual, and unwilling to conform to white society's conception of what a black man should be. It's no wonder that when the blaxploitation boom rolled around, Brown loomed large as one of its marquee names.
A prodigiously gifted athlete who also excelled at basketball, track and field, lacrosse, and seemingly every other sport, Brown used his size, strength, and toughness to dominate professional football as a legendary rusher. He retired early while still at the top of his game, then segued into a successful film career as a macho action hero before serving a stint as the head of Richard Pryor's ill-fated production company. A longtime political activist, Brown worked to financially empower minorities and helped gangbangers leave violence behind, all while being plagued by run-ins with the law and accusations that he assaulted women.
Lee's documentary dutifully explores the infamous balcony incident and some of Brown's shortcomings as a father, but still lapses regularly into hagiography. The cinematic valentine betrays a fan's unquestioning devotion, which keeps the film from delving too deeply into its subject's dark places; meanwhile, the stoic code of masculinity that Lee so admires in Brown doesn't prove conducive to self-reflection, candid confessions, or open displays of emotion. Brown sounds guarded throughout, and as a result, Jim Brown: All-American provides a curiously remote portrait that's often compelling, but seems to conceal as much as it reveals.