March 2002
Honoring a Legend : Spike Lee on Jim Brown: All- American

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

Honoring a Legend : Spike Lee on Jim Brown: All- American

Before Morris Chestnut, Shemar Moore, and Wesley Snipes displayed their muscular and acrobatic skills, there had to have been someone who paved the way for them. No it wasnít O.J or Bernie Casey, although a strong case can be made for both. The person who carved the way for athletes to get meatier roles was Jim Brown. He made such an impact for blacks that hasnít been recognized until now. Director Spike Lee wanted to let young people know who put it down for them in his illuminating documentary of the living legend. In an interview with, Spike Lee discusses the importance of the living legend.

WM: What is it about Jim Brown that made him a hero to you?

SL: Initially what made him a hero, as a young black kid growing up in Brooklyn, NY, was his athletic prowess. Then seeing him get down with Lee Marvin and all the other guys, like (John) Cassavettes and Ernest Borgnine in the ďDirty DozenĒ so thatís where it started.

WM: When you decided you wanted to do this, how long did it take you to get the project off the ground?

SL: Well, I thought about doing this documentary while I was still shooting ďHe Got GameĒ. I cast Jim in that film along with Ray Allen and Denzel Washington. Jim and I had met before that but never spent any time before that. Shortly after that I went to Jim and said ďI want to make a documentary about youĒ and he said ďCome on, Iím readyĒ. He was skeptical at first, not at my willingness to do it, but the fact that who was going to give me the money to make the film. After a couple of years, I went to Ross Greenberg of HBO. He asked me how much it was going to cost in terms of the budget and he said, ďletís goĒ and I called Jim and said, ďletís go, we got the moneyĒ. It took us more than a year to make the film.

WM: Before we get into the film, what did you enjoy about the documentary because most people donít realize some documentaries are scripted?

SL: We didnít have a script. We didnít use a script on the first film we did, ď4 Little GirlsĒ. Narrative, documentary, TV commercials and music videos - for me, they all come under the same heading, cinema and Iím a filmmaker. I didnít want to put up any barriers thatís going to limit my going from one to the other. I didnít want to put constraints on myself so I just see it as filmmaking and I enjoy them all.

WM: If you work without a script, what are the unique challenges for you as it starts to come together?

SL: When working without a script, you have an enormous amount of material. You have an idea as to what you want to say, but you still have to put it into a form, you got to shape. You do that in narrative too, but youíre doing that from a script. But with a documentary, you have this massive amount of footage and you just shape, and pull it, twist it, and get it right.

WM: The film starts off slowly with sound, then builds up with lots of pieces of his life. Was that your vision for the film?

SL: To be honest, anybody, any filmmaker, any artist that says they know exactly what to do at every single moment is lying. A lot of stuff has mistakes in discoveries. So when we were in Tampa Bay, the day before the Super Bowl, I see this tunnel, and thought about using it as the opening shot of the film. Nobody thought about Jim, being a gladiator in his day, returning to the field/ coliseum. Where in the film this piece was going was always a question. But once you put all the pieces together in the editing room, it becomes obvious. Thatís your opening

WM: As you learned more about Jim Brown while doing this film, did you have an idea as to putting together a beginning, middle and an end?

SL: It gave us a beginning, middle and an end. I went to school with one of his daughters, Kim Brown. She was at Clark College while I was at Morehouse in Atlanta, Georgia, but I really didnít know anything about the children. Once we began interviewing the children on the bulk of what took place, and the latter stages of shooting, thatís when I decided on how to end the film, with his children. They are the future, and we didnít know another kid was coming, but for me, thatís really the tragic part. Itís so often with oneís success that there are casualties, and a lot of times the casualties are the children. In this case, Kevin Brown was definitely affected with the relationship with his father, and him not being there. Consequently heís still battling substances.

WM: Jim Brown is a larger than life character, and thereís always the danger of sanitizing or destroying him, how did you straddle that line?

SL: Thatís a very good question. Well, you try to do the best you can. You have to be truthful and as honest as possible when looking at another human beingís life. Thereís something youíre constantly struggling with all the way. I know that there might be people who feel we treated him as we let him get off too much. Or why did we bring up the other stuff. Jim thought that it was very fair. On one hand, everyone knows heís the greatest football player ever, and the other hand, heís the guy who supposedly threw the lady off the balcony, so we had to deal with that. Thatís why we had to spend 2 months trying to track down Eva Marie Bohn Chinn in Munich, Germany. We interviewed her. Jim Brown and Eva were the only two in that room. Both have their distinctive opinions about what happened in that room on that fateful day. Itís left up to the audience to decide. For me, thatís always the best cinema. I donít care if we talk about documentary or narrative, itís best when you just present stuff and itís left up to the audience to decide.

WM: As someone whoís accomplished lots of goals and to meet another person whoís done the same thing, does Jim Brown still inspire you?

SL: Oh yes, heís a great inspiration. But his inspiration was Paul Robeson, which was another inspiration for me. There are examples of not only African American men, but women, who we could all point to who went through tough trials and tribulations and make the little stuff weíre doing seem petty. We examined that stuff and canít believe that they survived through that. That gives me the strength to deal with the BS they are putting on me now. So yes, the man still inspires me.

WM: Are there some things about JB that you wanted to point out?

SL: One of the things I really wanted to stress in this film is what Jim did off the football field. So much is made about Jimís physical being and thatís true. He had and still has a great body. He was also the smartest player on the field too. Too often the intelligence of black athletes is negated. We come out of the womb dunking and running. Thereís hard work involved. That stuff is never talked about.

WM: What do you hope people will draw from this film?

SL: Jim is an amazing human being with flaws and faults like all of us. Heís lived 5 lifetimes. Heís 66 years old and still going strong. He just had a kid, has a new young wife, and is still active. He prides himself in being relevant. He still holds great respect and admiration in the community, down in the streets, down in the ghettos, down in the barrios, dealing with the Bloods and the Crips through his organization, Amer-I-Can. Heís just doing. But of course, heís in Ventura County Jail now, serving 180 days (6 mos.) for vandalism, breaking his own window (car windshield). But heíll bounce back.

Jim Brown: All American will have an exclusive run at The Film Forum, West Houston St., in New York City.