Rated PG for thematic content, violence and language involving racism, and for brief sensuality.
Starring Rob Brown, Dennis Quaid, Charles S. Dutton.
Written by Charles Leavitt and Robert Gallagher.
Directed by Gary Fleder.
By Dan Metcalf
The trouble with making biography films these day is that darned reality. No matter how much painstaking effort is exerted, I can't help but wonder how much of these 'biopics' is artificially manufactured for the sake of timing, story flow, convenience, or downright artistic license. The Express, the story of Ernie Davis, the first black man to win the Heisman Trophy, is the latest period film that takes a look back at a real person.
Ernie Davis (played by Rob Brown) grew up in New York State and spent most of his adolescent years in Elmira (he would later be dubbed 'The Elmira Express', hence the movie's title) where he excelled at football. Heavily recruited by some major colleges in the late 1950s, he eventually choses Syracuse, with a little nudging from Jim Brown, a Syracuse alum who many considered the best college player of his day, and a man who'd already taken over much of the pro football headlines. In the movie, Jim warns young Ernie that 1960 Syracuse isn't an ideal situation for a young black man, but that the head coach, Ben Schwartzwalder (played by Dennis Quaid) is the man who will develop the player's football gifts, even though he isn't exactly a civil rights advocate.
Ernie soon discovers the effects of racism wherever he goes; in the locker room, the playing field, local culture, and especially within his coach who wants more than ever to win a national championship while not offending the conventional wisdom of the day. That cultural roadblock suggests that black men should not excel in places where white men might take offense, especially as the team ventures south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Ernie challenges that notion and disobeys his coach when he is close to scoring a touchdown during a game at a predominantly white southern university. In the movie, Davis refuses to leave the game, and scores the game-clinching touchdown. Over the season, Davis continues to challenge his coach to not accept the racist attitudes of the day, and allow his star player to shine without fear of offending sensitive cultural norms.
Later, when Syracuse prepares to play the University of Texas for the national championship, Ernie is faced with the worst racist threats of his life. During the 1960 Cotton Bowl game, Ernie fights through injury and several cheap shots to lead the Orangemen to victory. The next year, Davis wins the Heisman Trophy, meets President Kennedy, and is the first overall pick in the NFL draft (by Washington, then traded to Cleveland, where he is expected to play alongside Jim Brown).
Before he can ever play a single down for Cleveland, Davis is diagnosed with leukemia, and dies in 1963.
The Express is a more than adequate film in terms of history, drama and football action. Rob Brown plays Davis well, without becoming too melodramatic. Quaid registers a reasonable imitation of a man who must learn to win on the field while keeping cultural history on his side. Quaid's Coach Schwartzwalder also takes his time in allowing the audience to feel any sympathy for him.
The main qualm I have with The Express is the way it handles the two divergent themes of Davis' life; his brave triumph over racism and the tragedy of his short life. Both aspects are created well, but the transition between the two is a rough shift to take. The tragic part of his life on film also drags on a little, making it seem like a long epilogue. I also can't help but wonder, that as dialogue rolls off the tongues of the actors, most of the words were not transcribed but were created or embellished by well-meaning writers. I get that same feeling as the storyline develops.
Call me a cynic, but when it comes to real historical figures, dramatization just never lives up to reality, and perhaps stories like Ernie Davis' are better left to documentaries for purists like me. Even so, such stories need to be told, if you can take your history from likes Hollywood and all its view of reality.