100 Rifles is a spaghetti western that calls for judgment in its time. Burt Reynolds smiles through his starring role as a biracial Native American hero. Raquel Welch, the thoroughbred indigenous damsel in distress, adopts a hideous Mexican accent. But what really offended her sensibilities was that Jim Brown gained maximum fame as the swashbuckling hero who not only gets her girl, but manhandles her in a stormy love scene.
This was exciting stuff for 1969, a time when black actors could barely appear on screen with their white peers without sparking national controversy. But Brown would not allow himself to be punished by the open racism of Hollywood or the murders of Martin and Malcolm or the Jim Crow-era laws designed explicitly to keep him in place. He was determined, uncompromising, always his own man and the most intimidating presence in the room to boot. Yeah Friday announcement of his death at age 87. It came as a shock, it’s because most thought the Grim Reaper didn’t even have much of a chance of taking down football.
His wife, Monique, did not reveal Brown’s cause of death in her social media announcement. But one suspects that even death approached cautiously and surely did not take him by surprise. In fact, it would be hard to find a more immovable fixture in American life than Brown, on or off the field.
Spike Lee captures the fullness and complexity of Brown in his epic 2002 documentary Jim Brown All-American in painstaking detail. In one especially memorable segment, a former Cleveland Brown teammate reminisces about a sharply dressed Brown getting off the team bus on a patch of ice and battling physics for what seemed like an eternity before walking on smoothly. Brown was simply the man who would not give in: to convention, to consensus, to no equal or greater force. And it was his prodigious athletic gift that made him so headstrong.
It is the tool that caused their break with St Simons Island in Georgia, cradle of a proud tradition of black self-determinism and a legacy of centuries of british looting. It’s what convinced the wealthy white Wasps of Manhasset, New York, where his mother worked as a maid. That’s how Brown broke the color barrier at Syracuse University, where he quickly emerged as a generational talent in football and lacrosse. Three consecutive college lacrosse championships earned him a place in the sport’s hall of fame.
But of course I was in the nfl gridiron where Brown made his legend as a 6-foot-2, 230-pound locomotive that required the men’s teams to stop. And even then he would never give them any satisfaction in a job done, carefully getting back to his feet again and again so the defenses couldn’t tell if he was tired or hurt. It was a headache for coach Paul Brown, the passing game pioneer who was both a prisoner of Brown’s five-yard carrying average and the star’s insistence on living outside his rules. Famously, the coach slammed backup running back Bobby Mitchell because he couldn’t scold the team’s star directly.
Browns owner Art Modell was just as powerless. When he threatened Browns with fines for missing the team’s training camp in 1966 when production of The Dirty Dozen ran long, Brown called a press conference from the film’s Elstree set, took the microphone in a military uniform, and announced his He retired from American football in 1965. He was 30 years old and the biggest draw in the game by far. He had just been named league MVP for the third time and won a long-elusive NFL championship. He was the league’s all-time leading rusher with 12,312 yards in his career. Most notably: He set that mark in a decade when there were only 12 regular-season games.
Years ago, I contacted Brown to ask sports illustrated piece on the nobility of running the ball after Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson passed the 2,000-yard rushing mark and flirted with the idea of going for 2,500. Throughout our hour-long conversation, Brown was as serious and unflinching as ever.
When I mentioned another 2,000-yard rusher who said he didn’t understand what his linemen were doing until he was done playing, Brown ran into the daylight; “Well, he was in the stone age because he pretty much knew every task my boys had,” he snorted. When I suggested that running the ball would become less and less of a viable option as football offenses raged, he held up a stiff arm; “The career conversation is a media conversation,” he said. “I really don’t buy it.” When I wondered if he’d regret not hiding the hasty marks from him, he trampled my jumping logic. “I didn’t give a damn how many records he had because there was no record in front of me to break,” he snapped.
It wasn’t until I asked him if 1,000 yards should endure as the season’s baseline for running backs that Brown finally gave up that wry laugh of his that landed on his tonsils like a large rock on a pickaxe. “You start with 12 games and then you go to 14 and then 16 games and you’re still talking 1,000 yards?” he smiled. “Well, that’s almost embarrassing. Who the hell wants to get 1,000 yards in 16 games, unless you’re a one-legged running back?
At the time, Brown was 77 years old, and what little filter he had left had mostly eroded away. But the scariest thing to hear now is why he got into our phone chat in the first place. “The only reason I’m talking to you is that I have such admiration for Adrian and his family and I think he’s a tremendous kid and tremendous talent,” he began. I doubt his opinion would have changed a year later, when Peterson was suspended for the 2014 season after being charged with felony child abuse for using sticks and belts to spank his four-year-old son. The beatings left cuts and bruises all over the boy’s body, including his buttocks and scrotum, and Peterson remains unrepentant years later.
Brown, better than anyone, can appreciate the misguided compromise. Entrenched in the shadow of his towering gang mediation and civil rights work lies a trail of physically violent incidents against women that went largely unprosecuted, a consequence that owes more to the times than to Brown preempting anything. . The most powerful interview in Lee’s documentary comes from Eva Bohn-Chin, an ex-girlfriend who nearly died after Brown threw her off a second-story balcony. In the autobiography of him with Bugsy’s screenwriter and noted creep James Toback, Brown claimed that Bohn-Chin made up the story to get back at him for an affair with Gloria Steinem.
Bohn-Chin ultimately failed to cooperate with prosecutors, and the matter ended with Brown paying a $300 fine, his penalty for punching a sheriff’s deputy investigating the incident. The only time he really got into trouble was in 1999, after he brought a shovel into his wife Monique Brown’s car when a heated argument broke out. That cost Brown three years of probation, a year of domestic violence counseling, and 400 hours of community service with an $1,800 fine, but Brown, steadfast in his belief that he had done nothing wrong other than destroying his property, he did not relent and was instead sentenced to a six-month jail term, serving half the time. Lee’s All-American also captures a lot of this.
Jim Brown was many things: a generational athlete, a Hollywood trailblazer, and a civil rights icon survived by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the young man in that famous Ali Summit photo shoot. But Brown was also a blatant misogynist and a respectable political conservative who publicly aligned himself with Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.
Raquel Welch summed up Brown best by recounting her experience in 100 Rifles, which began with that groundbreaking love scene, a moment she remembered for its awkwardness and Brown’s overwhelming machismo. “An actress is a little more than a woman, and an actor is a little less than a man,” she said as she slipped the technique on her scene partner. Brown was the model for an unwavering brand of masculinity that remained intact to the very end. He also begs to be judged in his own time. Unfortunately for Brown, the March of Time was not as recalcitrant as he was.