Originally produced for cable television, the documentary Jim Brown: All American has earned a limited theatrical run, perhaps due to the fact that Brown, an outstanding athlete and a less-than-stellar actor, is such a commanding screen presence. Director Spike Lee makes good use of his still imposing physicality, but insights into what makes Brown tick are missing. The film also tends to gloss over the more controversial aspects of his career.

Brown is so assertive that he shapes the content and focus of the documentary to an unusual degree. He is expansive while describing his idyllic childhood on the Georgian island of St. Simon's and his relatively comfortable high-school years in Manhasset, Long Island. Brown's years at Syracuse University weren't as happy, although he was an All-American in two sports.

Brown played pro football for nine years with the Cleveland Browns. It's during this portion of the film that the combination of archival footage and comments by Brown and his teammates really pays off. Brown is astonishing as he improvises, breaks tackles, and simply outperforms everyone on the field, while the observations from players like Paul Warfield help to illuminate just how remarkable his achievements were.

Brown made his film debut in 1964's Rio Conchos, and abruptly quit football in 1966, when filming for The Dirty Dozen dragged on too long. Ridiculing actors like Sidney Poitier, Brown claims that he brought a new kind of action hero and lover to the screen. However, he seems oblivious to the cumulative impact of his projecting a macho, swaggering, often violent persona in a string of largely forgettable B-movies. In one of the few revealing interviews in the film, Raquel Welch (Brown's co-star in 100 Rifles) talks about how childish he was during their love scene, and says, charitably, 'He's not the ideal candidate for an actor.'

Sadly, Brown's movie roles seemed to spill over into his private life, which was marked by assault charges, lawsuits and messy divorces. The film skips much of this material, although some revealing glimpses do slip through. Brown is not just unrepentant, but duplicitous about his relationship with a woman he allegedly threw off a second-floor balcony. Still visibly frightened some 40 years later, she says he left her 'a damaged person.' Brown has less to say about his children, one of whom remembers his father hugging him only once in his life.

Brown's humanitarian efforts are a welcome relief from the sometimes defensive accounts of incidents in his later life. Stylistically the documentary is conservative, even old-fashioned. Once the sports and film clips run out, Lee doesn't have much more to work with than talking heads, and they aren't enough to keep anyone but diehard sports fans interested.

--Daniel Eagan