Huffman review: The Express
‘The Express’Rated: PG (thematic content, violence and language involving racism, brief sensuality)
Running time: 2 hrs. 10 min.
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Rob Brown, Nelsan Ellis, Kris Wolff, Darrin DeWitt Henson
Rating: PP 1/2 (out of 4)
“The Express,” a movie about the life of Ernie Davis, the first black to win the Heisman Trophy, isn’t bad.
It’s fairly moving and well-acted, and the cinematography is gorgeous.
But it could have been better ó had it not played on every racial stereotype ever conceived, making it reminiscent of a TV movie.
That said, it’s still a decent movie and worth a look.
Davis played for Syracuse University from 1959 to 1961. He won the Heisman Trophy following the 1961 season, then died of leukemia about a year later. He was only 23.
Davis was, by all accounts, a fine human being and his passing at such a young age remains a tragedy.
But was he perfect?
“The Express” leads viewers to believe so, showing Davis as a one-dimensional character whose greatest sin was to have the gumption to stand up to his coach ó who surely had it coming.It’s a shame Davis couldn’t have been portrayed as displaying a wart or two.
He came to Syracuse after Jim Brown (probably the greatest running back in the history of the NFL) graduated.
The focus of the movie is that Davis completed the task that Brown had begun ó namely, win the Heisman.
In “The Express,” Davis is played by Rob Brown (“Finding Forrester”). Ben Schwartwalder, the Syracuse coach, is played by Dennis Quaid.
The pairing between Brown and Quaid is excellent, the highlight of the movie.
Is Schwartzwalder a racist ó according to the movie, he told Davis not to date white girls, and pulled him out of a game rather than let him score against a white Texas team in the Cotton Bowl ó or simply a caring coach looking out for his players?
“Coach likes winning more than he dislikes Negroes,” one black player says to another at one point.
But the movie never answers Schwartzwalder’s leanings and the development of Quaid’s character is incomplete.
(This is also where we feel obligated to caution viewers to accept at face value the “based on a true story” line. The truth is, in that Cotton Bowl matchup between Syracuse and Texas, Davis scored not once, but twice. You can’t help but wonder, too, if Brown really visited the locker room in the third quarter to shame Davis into returning to the field.)
The movie has its share of humor.
In one scene, Davis and a black teammate are jogging through town when Davis asks about finding a black girl to date.
“You’d have a better chance finding a black polar bear than a black coed,” his teammate replies.
In the Cotton Bowl game, a white Texas lineman chides one of the Syracuse linemen, asking how a white Christian could look himself in the mirror after blocking for a black running back.
“I’m Jewish,” the Syracuse player responds.
In another scene, a white lineman tells a black opponent he’s going to hit him so hard it’ll send him back to Africa.
“That’s funny,” the black player replies. “I’m from Philly.”
The movie’s producers did a nice job recreating the feel of the late-1950s. The scenes of Syracuse University are picturesque and the cars lining the streets are beautiful.
The movie line is moving, a cross between “Brian’s Song” and “Radio.”
Davis is shown as a child, he and his family mesmerized by Jackie Robinson’s break-through with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first black to crack Major League baseball’s color barrier.
Quaid plays well the gruff World War II veteran turned coach.
But the stereotyping of the the relationships between blacks and whites is overdone.
Davis’ family includes a stereotypical kindly grandfather who helps his grandson overcome his stuttering by making him read the Bible.
When a young Davis and his cousin are picking up returnable bottles along a railroad track, they’re confronted by white boys who demand their loot. Davis saves himself and his bottles by running ó the white boys, by the way, are flanked along the railroad tracks, hiding in waves, an amazingly well-orchestrated accomplishment for a bunch of 10-year-olds.
By the time Davis gets to college, he’s constantly roughed up by opposing teams while the referees turn blind eyes.
The fans at West Virginia University heave so much garbage at Davis you’d have sworn they carried their trash cans to the game.
There’s more, but you get the idea.
All that said, “The Express” isn’t bad.
Anyone who has played so much as a down of high school football will connect with the grueling practices to which the Syracuse players are subjected.
Game footage is fairly realistic, though slightly overdone. Every tackle sounds like a pileup of 18-wheelers on the interstate.
The movie offers numerous black actors (Darrin Dewitt Henson does a fine job portraying Brown) and actresses the opportunity to showcase their talents. It’s a demand for minority work that is too often lacking in the film industry.
Just go into the movie realizing it’s more about mortality and race than football.
It’s not bad, but it could have been better.