Saturday, January 6, 2007

Jim Brown: All-American

Jim Brown: All-American
dir. Spike Lee

Jim and Raquel

January 6, 2007 - DVD

When the Levees Broke was my favorite movie of the year, and buying it on DVD has got me hooked back into what seems like a bi-yearly habit of rewatching, in a cluster, some of the key (and not-so key) milestones in Spike Lee’s career. To my mind, Lee remains the best living American filmmaker, and so I guess every once in a while I get the itch to retrace some of his cinematic steps. I’m working to know how he does what he does, and why it grips me so hard. Because of the Levees triumph, this go round I’ve been concentrating in part on his documentaries; a week or so ago, I watched 4 Little Girls again, and now I’ve come to Jim Brown, which I’d never seen. The film runs through Brown’s life, from high school and college sports on through his pro career, his movie career, his demons, and his hopeful legacy. The treatment Lee bestows upon him indicates a few things about both men, and for me helps to clarify a particular element of Lee’s overall approach.

Lee first gives us Jim Brown, The Legend. Through stock footage (is anybody more artful in their use of stock footage and photographs than Lee? I mean, man...) we witness the human train that was Jim Brown, a guy who stiff-armed and charged his way down a football field. One person in the film states that, to them, Brown was the first human to embody the characteristics of John Henry; he was tireless and almost mythically powerful and agile.

Then he goes to Hollywood, and the documentary gives us a lot of discussion about how Brown was kind of like the anti-Poitier, an African-American man who wasn’t limited to good manners and intelligence. No, Brown brought his dick along, fucking and fucking shit up, and (the movie implies) kind of paving the way for the entire blaxploitation movement (both for good and bad, I guess). So, again, we’re given a fairly mythic portrait of Brown.

And here’s where Lee’s storytelling skills kick in. Near the end of the Hollywood segment, Brown discusses his friendship with James Toback, the filmmaker responsible for The Pick-up Artist, Two Girls and a Guy, etc. Toback also directed the awesome movie Fingers, with Harvey Keitel, and included in it Brown playing a violent, sex-crazed pimp who brutalizes two white whores. The scenes in which Brown appears work almost like self-satire (the moment when he cracks the girls' heads together gets an A+ for uncomfortable humor, which becomes approximately one gazillion times more disturbing as Lee's documentary continues... see: two paragraphs from now), playing to some people’s fear that Brown only existed to roughly violate white women, as he’d been involved previously on screen with Raquel Welch and Stella Stevens. This relationship between Brown and Toback would seem like a footnote to most viewers, I think, except that it introduces a key idea—the puncturing of Brown’s image.

Watching the documentary, it occurred to me that this has a similar structure as something like Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, or Summer of Sam; a lot of time is spent building up the central personalities, getting you to like them as movie characters, and in Brown’s case, marvel at his amazing ability. And then Lee’s mind starts to rev, and he begins to poke a few reality holes into the proceedings. Then the holes get bigger and bigger, until suddenly these are more like complicated human beings than they are comfortable fictional figures. So it is that at about the ninety-minute mark, with just over half an hour left to work with, Lee introduces Brown’s… uhh… “woman issues.”

Clearly the most controversial element of Brown’s story are the numerous mentions of his explosive temper and alleged tendency for female battery. Lee neither wallows in this stuff, nor shies away from it. He devotes exactly as much time to it as it takes to address, and lets it speak for itself. Naturally, it colors everything we’ve seen before. It’s an inspired technique to lump all this information together, instead of dealing with it chronologically as it occurred in Brown’s life. This way, you have to take your mind back to the myth of the man and drop this information in yourself. For a while, it feels almost like a betrayal, both from Brown and from Lee—“Why weren’t we told this shit before? This changes everything!” But it wouldn’t have been half as effective the other way, and it more closely resembles the real way we encounter this kind of knowledge. It also allows us to consider the difference between myth and reality, and the value of both perspectives.

This questioning and investigative mood continues into the uneasy relationship Brown has with the children of his first marriage, one of whom discusses the unfortunate fate of being saddled with the name “Jim Brown, Jr.,” and another that’s still pulling himself all the way out of drug addiction. Each of them regret the lack of interaction they had with their father, and Brown muses about the difficulty of being involved only with his kids, without being able to have the mother as well. For a man as obsessed with women as Brown, maybe that’s true... and for his children it must remain a somewhat devastating bit of knowledge. If he couldn’t have her, he didn’t really want them. Thanks, Dad.

This isn’t a monumental piece of work like Levees, which everybody really needs to rush (rush) out and see, but it offers such great insights into this amazing director. Spike Lee has spent his entire career simultaneously mythologizing and demythologizing people and topics, and that tendency is never more apparent than it is here. It’s a central technique I hadn’t really noticed before now, though its been plain as day, and one that I think goes a long way toward explaining his power as a filmmaker. He’s got his finger on two pulses at the same time—the large, timeless one of history and legacy, and the messy, real, complicated human element. It seems like we shouldn't have one without the other, and fortunately they’re both so endlessly fascinating. Few filmmakers seem to really get this concept, and I think maybe nobody’s ever gotten it the way he does.

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