Not that there is a lot, or that I've seen a whole bunch, but this is probably the best football film to pass before my eyes since Friday Night Lights (2004). It tells the true story of the first African-American to win the Heisman trophy, a college athlete known more for his running than his reading.
THE EXPRESS may not give us a complete picture of who Ernie Davis was, although it must be said that that's part of the point; that no complete picture could be. Yet, the film does capture the essence of what a man in his position was and what he had to experience.
The film does so in a way that doesn't fall completely to conventions. It's convincing and inspirational, not only as it should be, but totally as it wants to be. It's done so by the dedicated fight in each of the lead actors who inhabit the typical mentor-student relationship we've seen a million times before, but, there's an interesting turnabout. I would venture to say that here the student teaches the teacher, or, the player coaches the coach.
It's not as if a middle-aged white man is going to educate a 20-year-old black kid living in the 1950s about racism in America. Since he was a boy, Ernie Davis, played by Rob Brown (Finding Forrester and Coach Carter), literally had to run from white boys who would seek to do him harm, if for no other reason than the color of his skin, a moment that reminded me of that scene in Forrest Gump (1994), "Run, Forrest, run!"
Dennis Quaid plays Ben Schwartzwalder, the head football coach at Syracuse University. We're introduced to him in 1957 the same year that Jim Brown, the best running back the world had ever seen, was leaving Syracuse. What made Brown unique, besides his quick legs, is that he's African-American.
When it comes time to replace Jim Brown, Schwartzwalder hears buzz about another Negro running back, nicknamed the "Elmira Express." Schwartzwalder wants to recruit him. He perhaps sugar coats the fact that Ernie Davis' time at Syracuse might be all smiles.
No such luck. Not only does it become a grueling physical regiment, but an uneasy locker room tension grows between Davis and several varsity players. One particular linebacker doesn't appreciate freshman Davis' fast ascension onto the varsity team, though it can't be denied that Davis himself is in fact fast on his feet.
Davis is reminded, however, that there are certain lines he cannot cross. Goal lines may be one thing, but off the gridiron, there are lines that he should never try to rush past. Leaving New York for away games, like ones in the south, Davis bears witness to Jim Crow and the segregation, the separate yet unequal treatment, of all black people.
On the surface, Schwartzwalder may seem open and welcoming and progressive. When he came to Davis' home with Jim Brown, played by Darrin Dewitt Henson (Stomp the Yard and Life Support), to recruit Davis, Schwartzwalder certainly seemed so. Yet, Schwartzwalder may be the most insidious racist of them all. He may not be a slave driver but he still uses blacks purely for manual labor.
One could argue that he's doing the same with a whole bunch of white players as well, but Schwartzwalder won't allow the meritocracy to extend beyond the football field. The black players still can't date white women. They still can't walk through the front door of a hotel. They have to be shoved to a segregated and nastier section through the back.
Schwartzwalder doesn't cause these things but he won't lift a finger to stop them either. But, Schwartzwalder is not a total bigot. Tones and echoes of bigotry remain inside him, but Ernie Davis' determination after realizing his importance changes Schwartzwalder for the better and brings the coach closer to his player.
At first, Davis wants to fall in line, not challenge Jim Crow, and only focus on his football training. However, a rally with the NAACP and seeing the segregation with his own eyes motivates Davis to open Schwartzwalder's eyes, which too have been narrowly focused on winning the national championship.
What's sad though is that before the epiphany the 6-foot-2, 212-pound runner perhaps concentrated too much on the game. There is a parallel to Friday Night Lights and the character Boobie Miles whose sole focus was the sport and not the scholastics. Once Boobie Miles was injured and couldn't play anymore, the dream was over. It killed him because he had nothing left.
A similar thing happens here with Davis. A reviewer for Sports Illustrated magazine compared it to Brian's Song (1971). Yes, there are matching elements, very briefly, but this is no Brian's Song.
I wish more of a big deal were made over the fact that Davis was more athletically-inclined than he was academically-inclined. There is an interesting scene where Davis' friend and fellow black teammate Jack Buckley, played by Omar Benson Miller (Miracle at St. Anna and Things We Lost in the Fire), introduces Davis to Marie, his future wife, played by Aunjanue Ellis. Marie, who is studying education, simply asks him what's his major, and Davis can't answer.
It's at this point one relaizes that Davis isn't there for is brains but for his brawn. Not much effort is seen of Davis trying to change that. Miraculously, a stutter and reading-problem that Davis had as a child is brushed aside, as is any attempt at higher learning. Actor Rob Brown is then believably devastated once his character discovers that without football, he has nothing left.
He may have a Heisman trophy, but if that's his only claim in life, then that truly is a tragedy. Actor Rob Brown has a very bittersweet, full-circle moment at the end that had me tear up, as his character realizes this. Let it be a lesson to all black athletes!
Five Stars out of Five
Rated PG for violence and racist language
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 9 mins.