Tackling A Tough Subject

It's pretty clear Spike Lee is a history buff, so it's no wonder that his first HBO documentary, 1997's "Four Little Girls," about four black children murdered at Sunday school in 1963, was nominated for an Oscar. In his second HBO documentary, Lee addresses another tough subject: football great Jim Brown. "After 'Four Little Girls'," Lee tells NEWSWEEK, "I just kept thinking about what would be an interesting piece of history to put on film. Jim Brown seemed like an obvious choice."

"The Jim Brown Story," which airs in December, takes its audience into the funny, bewildering and sometimes frightening world of one of the most controversial athletes of the 20th century, who just happens to be currently incarcerated. Shortly before filming started, Brown was charged with domestic violence and ordered to do community service, which entailed picking up trash on a California highway. He refused and is serving six months.

The documentary recounts Brown's poverty-stricken life on St. Simons Island, Ga., and his move to New York in high school. It was during this time that he became a star athlete--but was also exposed to his mother's harsh life as a single woman. Different men were a constant, and so was abuse. Lee doesn't shy away from how this shaped Brown's life, including his relationship with a woman whom he allegedly threw off a balcony during an argument. "Jim doesn't duck the hard stuff," says Lee. Neither did the director: Lee tracked the woman down in Germany for her account. Though Lee's been nominated for an Oscar for "Do the Right Thing," his best shot at one may come from the detailed eye he has for the past.

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