His name was Ernie Davis, and in 1961 he won the Heisman Trophy during his senior year at Syracuse. He was a dynamic talent at running back who was also drafted by the Browns and with fellow alum Brown was projected to be part of a backfield tandem like the NFL had ever seen. But tragically before he could ever play a down for the Browns, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia. He died in 1963 at the young age of 23. Two years ago, a Davis biography, The Express, was released in theaters, and for me I'd never even heard of Davis. It took awhile but I caught up with this sports bio.
Sports movies set before the 1980s have become more and more prevalent in the last 10 years or so, probably because a majority of the audience is being introduced to the story for the first time. Think of Remember the Titans, Glory Road, Invincible, and now The Express. It's always tricky making a true sports story because the moviemaker has to tread that fine line between telling a truthful story and whitewashing it at the same time so it doesn't insult anyone. Director Gary Fleder does a pretty good job handling those duties of a young black athlete on the rise in the late 1950s and early 1960s as the civil right movement was erupting all over the country.
Growing up in Pennsylvania and New York, a young Ernie Davis faces many of the same challenges a young black kid would have faced anywhere in the country, prejudice and racism for no other reason than his skin color. Ernie (Rob Brown) starts playing football and late in his high school career he has gained the attention of college coaches across the country, but thanks to some recruiting from Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson) he decides on playing for coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) at Syracuse University. But even playing at a college in upstate New York, Davis faces the same challenges he's always faced; people who judge him not by his talent or skill, but by his skin color.
This biography focuses heavily on his sophomore year when Davis led Syracuse to the national title with bookends on either end showing how he grew up and then his brief post-college career. Director Fleder filmed much of his story in and around Chicago -- including Blue Island, Evanston, Berwyn, and Aurora -- to give the proceedings an authentic feel of being dropped into 1950s Americana. The look of the movie is key, and here Fleder succeeds in a big way. The football scenes especially work well, edited so the action is always easy to follow while still knowing the game situation.
Since I saw his film debut in 2000's Finding Forrester, I was sold on Rob Brown as an actor. He hasn't been in that many movies since, but he hasn't disappointed yet. Playing Ernie Davis is another strong part for him although at times I thought he came across as a little wooden. He handled almost all of the football scenes, showing off an impressive athletic ability. Brown delivers one great monologue late in the movie and for the most part delivers a solid performance. In Davis' corner for support is Omar Benson Miller as Jack Buckley, another black player on Syracuse's team and a close friend of Ernie's, Charles S. Dutton as Pops, Ernie's grandfather, Nelsan Ellis as Will, Ernie's cousin, and Nicole Beharie as Sarah, his girlfriend. Miller and Dutton especially shine with their parts.
Of the two key roles though, Dennis Quaid I think was handled the more difficult one. As Hall of Fame coach Ben Schwartzwalder, he has to keep us guessing to a certain point. Are some of the decisions he makes for his benefit, for Ernie, or because he's looking out for his team? The movie makes it clear the pressures that were on him -- from the inside and outside -- while also bringing up the idea about his motivations. Miller's Buckley says at one point "Coach likes black athletes more than he hates losing...by a little." But motivations or prejudices aside, this is a coach who wants to get the best out of his athletes, color be damned.
The difficulties Ernie Davis faced as a black football player in front of a nation should have been interesting enough where the story did not need to be altered to make it more interesting, or should I say more controversial? Watching through the end credits, I read that a whole scene -- the West Virginia game -- was fabricated. It felt unnecessary to create a game that never happened just to show what Davis faced from opposing players and fans. The national championship game against Texas in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas does a fine job of that.
Focusing so much on Davis' sophomore year comes at an expense though for the rest of the story. By the time the year is over, the movie's already at 90+ minutes. The last 30-40 minutes feels rushed as Fleder packs 3-4 years into less than a half hour. We've spent all this time learning more about Ernie, his family, his friends, and when we're supposed to feel for him and this horrific disease sapping away his life, the scenes go by in the blink of an eye instead of letting them develop. These scenes are still effective in their simplicity, but it would have been nice for some more background, a little more development. Still, it's a well-acted, beautifully shot sports biography, and I am a sucker for those.
The Express <----trailer (2008): ** 1/2 /****