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Cinema's Man of Steel: Jim Brown (1936-2023)

On May 19, the anniversary of the birth of his friend Malcolm X, pro football star, actor and activist Jim Brown died at age 87. Brown, whose public career spanned eight decades, died on the heels of fellow activist Harry Belafonte and his contemporary sex symbol and former co-star Raquel Welch. What kind of figure trafficked with both Raquel Welch and Malcolm X? A highly complicated one, as Brown's legacy attests. Despite his good work as a civil rights icon and superstar on the field and screen, the superhero running back will be remembered as much for his history of domestic violence arrests as his advocacy for Black business ownership and street gang truces. 

Brown's Hollywood career began in L.A., where he was for that year's Pro Bowl all-star game. An official from 20th Century Fox approached him and suggested the Browns star take a screen test. Brown's screen debut was in the Western produced the same year, “Rio Conchos.” In a film starring Richard Boone and Edmond O'Brien, Brown was cast as a U.S. Cavalry officer named Sergeant Franklyn, a Buffalo soldier. Brown set the tone for a cinematic career portraying soldiers, private eyes, and other tough guys. He also contributed to an unfortunate movie trend: the Black character being killed before a film's conclusion. Importantly, much like pioneering Woody Strode, Brown played an unapologetically masculine character, which, other than Strode's supporting roles in Westerns and "sword and sandal" sagas, was rare in the mid-’60s. Brown helped Hollywood migrate from the safe, harmless ideals embodied by Sidney Poitier toward free-swinging Black masculinity and, ultimately, Blaxploitation. He carved a path in the latter genre for performers such as Fred Williamson and Bernie Casey (also former pro football players). 

Between 1957 and 1965, Jim Brown broke and set all manner of NFL records for rushing yardage and yards per carry. At 6'3", 230, the chiseled former three-sport star from Syracuse University was often compared by sportswriters to Superman. This image positioned him for film breakthroughs at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It also made him a symbol of virility. When Brown entered Syracuse, athletic officials warned him not to be "like Avatus Stone." Stone was a handsome, Black Syracuse football star who dated a white majorette on the campus. In a 1968 interview with Alex Haley for Playboy, Brown said, "I heard so many sermons about what I should be like."

In addition, Brown always envisioned himself as more than a mere athlete. He founded the Black Economic Union to encourage his people to pool their resources and build businesses in their communities. In that role, he marshaled athletes, his peers, who generally were in the best financial positions to invest and model the initiatives. Brown even partnered in an enterprise that helped manage and promote his buddy, Muhammad Ali (Main Bout, Inc.). 

When the movie industry expressed interest, Brown was a willing participant, looking to broaden his reach. His second role demonstrated this fact best. After the 1965 football season, when Brown was only 30 and in his prime, he traveled to Europe for his part in the screen adaptation of the novel “The Dirty Dozen.” When the Browns opened their 1966 training camp, their star back was still absent. Owner Art Modell threatened to suspend and fine Brown for time missed from camp. Brown was entering the final year of a three-year contract. Poor weather delayed the production, keeping Brown on location. Rather than report to training, Brown abruptly retired. In the film, Brown played recalcitrant former soldier Robert T. Jefferson, who has little patience with white people or authority figures—thus his demotion to the dirty dozen—a bunch of wartime prisoners being prepared for a largely suicidal commando mission led by Lee Marvin's character "Major Reisman." A more motley crew had seldom graced the screen. As in “Rio Conchos,” the snarling Brown was killed before the movie's climax. 

Away from the ballfield and the cameras, Brown was arrested in 1965 for assault and battery involving an 18-year-old named Brenda Ayres. Though he was cleared of the charges, Ayres later sued Brown for the paternity of her child. At the time, Brown was married to Sue Jones, with whom he had three children, including twins. In 1968, Brown allegedly threw model Eva Bohn-Chin from the second-floor balcony of his apartment. The charges were dismissed due to Bohn-Chin's lack of cooperation with the prosecutor, but the reputation stuck. In 1973, Brown, 37, proposed to an 18-year-old college student. They ended their engagement the next year. In various incidents in the 1970s and 1980s, Brown was charged with assault against both men and women and, in 1985, rape (later dismissed). Despite being cleared of most of these alleged offenses on paper or via technicalities, it became more difficult to distinguish between Brown's screen and public persona. Throughout, he insisted on his innocence.

In the November 11, 1968 edition of New York magazine, Gloria Steinem wrote that Jim Brown, whom she called in her title “The Black John Wayne,” was “... John Wayne, or maybe John Wayne with just a hint of Malcolm X thrown in.” By 1967, Brown had hosted a small cadre of Black athletes in The Cleveland Summit, a summer 1967 meeting where the men gathered to hear Muhammad Ali out on his resistance to enlist and serve in the U.S. military during the war in Vietnam. In 1968, Brown earned his first lead role in “The Split,” a caper movie about robbing the Los Angeles Coliseum. Diahann Carroll co-starred as Brown's ex. Brown co-starred in 1968's “Ice Station Zebra,” an Arctic-set thriller starring Ernest Borgnine and Rock Hudson. Brown portrayed "Captain Leslie Anders," a no-nonsense authority figure who, as in “Rio Conchos” and “The Dirty Dozen,” is killed. 

In 1969, he starred in both “Riot” (a prison movie) and with Welch in the sexy “100 Rifles” (another Western). Directors wisely did not try to present Brown as the dignified archetype Poitier had been. The "interracial" love affair with Welch's character was controversial for the times, in part for its violent overtones (the film's poster art plays up Brown and Welch's physiques). 

After a couple of lackluster film releases in 1970, Brown helped usher in Blaxploitation in 1972's “Slaughter” and “Black Gunn,” both lead roles. By then, film fans had been treated to 1971's “Shaft,” featuring a gun-wielding, hard-fisted, hard-loving Black private detective. The proliferation of such fare helped Brown find his wheelhouse; the tongue-in-cheek undertone of these stick-it-to-the-man vehicles allowed free rein in limited-budget productions where his limited range of expression and nuance was not a factor. Brown's film fortunes faded when studios moved away from the Black action marketplace, and filmgoers outgrew the genre's stereotypes and predictability. In the 1980s, he devoted his efforts to squashing gang beef via his Southern California-based Amer-I-Can foundation. The young "club" members, many of whom had grown up witness to Brown's unforgiving roles, respected the actor and former athlete for both respecting them, and taking the time to understand their lives. 

Jim Brown is not a simple figure to reconcile, as he touched the worlds of Civil Rights, entertainment, and commerce. He gained the trust of star athletes, including Ali in the latter's moment of truth. He lost the adulation of millions of fans through his domestic and legal troubles. He reached out to local youth during one of the most violent eras in L.A. history. NFL coaches and owners welcomed him into their locker rooms to impart lessons of toughness and perseverance. 

Whatever one thinks of the personal Brown, his movie career was significant for both its violent and sexual firsts. Unstoppable on the gridiron, uncompromising in his individual stances, often violently eliminated during his turns as the muscle in the motion picture, Jim Brown bridged the gap between the highly acceptable Poitier and boyishly romantic Belafonte. The very human Brown never played Superman, but in the U.S. mindset, he was filmdom's man of steel.

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