“I saw the chance to parlay what I had, while I was still hot, into something sultry. I said ‘Man this movie business looks good. I can make more money, work with those sexy girls, see the world. I can move into that, not even miss football. Time for me to get OUT’.”
“Out of Bounds” by Jim Brown and Steve Delsohn (1989)
I’ve written about how I became curious about Jim Brown in my first of two articles on the blaxploitation movies of the 1970’s. Without even knowing much about Jim, I sensed that he was a figure of some substance. Therefore, when I first learned about these “urban action dramas” and heard they were said to display blacks in an unfavourable light, I was confused. How could Jim Brown have done something to denigrate his own race? Sure enough, when I looked into it, I realized that the action films Jim made in the Seventies were simply that; balls-out action films in which Jim played the indestructible hero, getting the (sometimes white) girl and blowing away all the (sometimes racist) villains. We could argue the merit of these films but let’s move on and wrap up this intro with a quote from Jim’s book; “Most of my roles were not defined by race – today people think I made black exploitation films. Not only did I not make black exploitation films, I was playing roles that normally went to white guys. But that’s how people are. They talk but they don’t do their homework”. I take this to mean that guys like Jim and Fred Williamson were just making movies – not “blaxploitation” movies, or movies that exploited blacks (which is not what “blaxploitation” really means, anyways). Jim Brown made movies. Period.
And that’s why I really wanted to read Out of Bounds. But I didn’t get what I wanted though that doesn’t make the book bad. I must say that our friends at AbeBooks really came through for me on this one. I found the book in “very good” condition on their site and bought it. When it arrived, it was in rough shape. When I contacted them just to let them know they had misrepresented this particular book this time, they immediately sent me another one. This is a good example of why AbeBooks is the only place I buy books on the internet. Perhaps not surprisingly, the book is primarily about football. Jim was a star for the Cleveland Browns of the NFL; more than a star, he has been called one of the greatest running backs of all-time. This his autobiography gets right down to it. With little preamble, Out of Bounds begins with Jim recounting stories from his days as the premier carrier of the football. Then he rewinds a bit to recall being raised by his grandma on St. Simons Island, Georgia.
When the book was first published, it was heavily promoted as a no-holds-barred, opinionated tome that featured outspoken Jim shooting from the hip and that’s basically what it is though the years may have watered down much of the NFL-related content. As to the racism Jim faced, that, sadly, is still relevant for discussion today. I appreciated his honesty throughout the book. While he says he first experienced racism while a student at Syracuse, he also recounts the times white guys like Manhasset superintendent of schools Dr. Raymond Collins saved him from quitting college ball and his many coaches that gave him a chance and played straight with him. He says “those men literally changed my life, I can’t thank them here the way they deserve to be thanked”.
“In the case of awards and trophies…I didn’t give a damn about either. In part, it was the racial climate of the times, and my social consciousness: if they wouldn’t give me respect as a human being, then I wouldn’t accept their accolades for being a Football Star. I knew if you didn’t have both, you hadn’t won anything.”
Jim is understanding about race and seems to subscribe to the theory that you are either a good person or not, colour notwithstanding. He blames individuals less than he blames the system they have grown up in. Most people in his day, he says, learned from and had to operate under a system with lingering racist elements, thoughts and practices. As if to say many may not have felt hatred in their hearts towards any race but thinking a certain way about people had been programmed into them through no fault of their own; though he feels people need to take responsibility for their thoughts and change and update them, no matter their source.
“I’m a human being and want to be treated as one. I don’t want to go to Canada for that, or Russia. Don’t want to go back to mother Africa. America is my mother. When will I be accepted by my own family?”
Interesting that Jim says that some white guys feel good and say they are not racist; they have two black friends. Then some in the black community will jump on the white guy for even making such a statement which gets the white guy thinking maybe he does have a problem with race that he didn’t even know about. Brown points to the fact that many whites have “no education” and “no meaningful exposure” to black folks. Some, Brown says, are trying, making an effort.
“As blatant as Southern whites could be in their hatred, there were other Southern whites, if they liked you, who were just as straight-out, would stand up for you against any man. In the huge middle, there were all those white folks who didn’t know how to act. They were also affected by racists. How do you be a good guy in Mississippi? You invite three black co-workers for dinner, the Klan might torch your home. You might love those black guys, but not enough to risk the lives of your family. To try and stay sane, I had to measure each situation individually, and every person. I had to remind myself that in matters of race, very little is absolutely clear…”
Jim talks about organizing the black guys that played for the Browns. After partying, they would also get serious and discuss economics and life after football. Brown later helped create the Black Industrial and Economic Union, an entity that teamed pro athletes with businessmen who helped promote and finance black entrepreneurs resulting in scores of black-owned businesses across the country.
Jim Brown offers straight talk about various football stars and what he feels are their true strengths and legacies. He dishes on names like O.J. Simpson, Walter Payton, Gale Sayers, Bobby Mitchell, Earl Campbell, John Riggin and coach Paul Brown. Jim makes it plain he favours strong running backs, like himself. “Football is not about tricky plays. It’s about dominance. And the best way to dominate is to run the football“. You could say that considering the many names he discusses, men long since retired and some passed away – or passed into infamy – the book is then dated and of not much interest to today’s readers. But I can imagine that men who enjoyed the football of the Seventies and Eighties would love to hear some of these names.
“Now, if I couldn’t run around you, then we’d have to deal. Then I wanted to hit you as hard as you wanted to hit me. No, I wanted to hit you harder. I wanted your nose stinging, bleeding was okay, too. I wanted you flinching and demoralized. When I think of domination, I think of Gale and Walter and Earl and O.J., in no particular order. Give me Gale’s cuts, Earl’s power, O.J.’s speed and Walter’s heart.”
I wanted lots of skinny on Hollywood from Jim’s book but all I got was less than a full chapter. He does, though, mention one of my new favourite directors, Gordon Douglas, a man Jim calls “one of the good ones”. He shares some stories of Charles Bronson who he worked with in The Dirty Dozen. Jim says Bronson was “the strangest mofo I had ever met” and says that they flew to London to make the movie together and that Bronson didn’t say one word to him but that he was a great help to Brown on the set. Lee Marvin was brilliant but a drunk and Trini Lopez made it plain he thought he deserved a bigger part and would arrogantly say so, often – so director Robert Aldrich, not a man to trifle, killed him off as soon as he could.
He enjoyed his love scene with Stella Stevens in Slaughter and the feeling was mutual. He talks of Yvette Mimieux shutting guys down while on location making Dark of the Sun and he talks much of making 100 Rifles with Raquel Welch. He tries to dispel a lot of the legendary talk of their not having gotten along on set. Jim is gracious enough to say that the two “were just playing star games” and they “had both acted childishly”. And I love his fair and lucid explanation for his participation in “black exploitation pictures”. Brown says he was offered a role in a sequel to Mandingo, a role with little redeeming value for the black man who took it and a movie no doubt pushing the boundaries of what a self-respecting black actor would subject himself to. Brown didn’t take it but said he would have. He would’ve given it his all, made his money and then used it to finance more films with his fellow black actors. “Hollywood isn’t football: you can’t fight every battle frontally. In Hollywood, sometimes you have to stay alive to fight another day. As long as you know why you’re taking a bad part, as long as your heart is in the struggle, I don’t think you need to be ashamed. Provided you don’t make it a habit.”
Jim’s autobiography was released with a fair amount of sensationalism surrounding it. It was promoted as “super-charged”, “blunt”, “steamy” and “controversial”. Perhaps we are desensitized to such things now and today Out of Bounds doesn’t read as an exposé-type tell-all. In the book, Jim is honest about his feelings regarding various running backs like the ones already mentioned. He also shoots from the hip regarding his feelings on the NFL itself. Brown also makes plain the type of woman he likes and some of the parties (read “orgies”) he attended and hosted. He also attempts to set the record straight on a paternity issue and some of his run-ins with police. Throw in his discourses on race relations in the US and I suppose in 1989 this book could be sold in this sensationalist manner.
Some bold nuggets from the book include; Brown throwing down on fellow studs like Stallone (“the most insecure guy in the world”), John Wayne (“came off like he could whip anybody’s ass”) and – most painful for me to read, Tom Jones. Brown says TJ is “a ridiculous person” and describes the time Jones pumped Brown for information on a girl Jim had dated. Brown thought Arnold Schwarzenegger was a “good guy to spend time with” and he details his painful relationship with Richard Pryor. Once when Richard was in hospital and Jim was staying with him, Marlon Brando came to see Pryor and the three watched a closed-circuit fight together. Jim mentions fleetingly working with the soul group Friends of Distinction but I wish he had shared more about his work in the music business, with Earth, Wind and Fire and others. Brown talks of visiting the ghetto with Muhammad Ali and there is one Elvis Sighting in the book. Presley, a known football fan, invited Jim to Graceland and while Jim wanted to talk music, King inundated Brown with talk of games Jim had played, and even specific plays and runs he had made. Brown concludes “everything he said was perceptive and true. I thought, Yeah, this cat knows. He understands.”
Jim Brown wraps his life story to this point with talk of his film company and prison reform programs. You’ll get a real conversational read with Out of Bounds and it put me in mind of Gregg Allman’s very casually presented book. An example of JB’s writing, aided and abetted by many commas and last names only; “Minnifield and Dixon…were small, brash, doing the Dawg thing, and they backed up their mouths with talent and heart. The Browns…had Elway on the two at their place, they let him escape, win, end their season”. All this means that Jim Brown’s autobiography will be appreciated most by football fans – which only makes sense as Jim is most renowned for his successes on the gridiron. Me not getting enough detail about his time in the entertainment business is no fault of the book but I mention it just so you’ll know.