Every year, a football movie seeks to touch the hearts of audiences with a tale of good-over-evil triumph. We recall Denzel Washington’s victory over racism in Remember the Titans.
This year alone, there are four football films: Leatherheads, We Are Marshall, The Longshots, and The Express. Leatherheads was a dismal failure. What was George Clooney thinking? We Are Marshall, a story about the loss of an entire team, is a bit better. The Longshots gives us a girl-led pee wee football team that wins for an entire town.
Last is The Express, which examines racism, and actually coincides with football season. Its hero, an African-American athlete, is blessed with potential. After completing a great season for Syracuse University, he is noticed by everyone, even by the Heisman trophy committee.
Ernie Davis (played by Rob Brown), also known as The El Mira (New York) Express, is the first African-American to win the Heisman. The Express is Ernie’s story from childhood through his draft by the Cleveland Browns.
Along the way, Ernie is helped. Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) is only slightly racist; he sees Ernie’s talent and recruits him to play for his team, “The Orange Men.”
Ernie agrees to allow Ben to coach him, following a talk with a former Syracuse star, Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson). Ernie’s grandfather, Willie “Pop” Davis (Charles S. Dutton), not only teaches
Ernie how to speak properly (he had a stutter), but imparts lessons about being a good Christian. And, I can’t forget good old Jack “J.B.” Buckley (Omar Benson Miller), big brother to Ernie at Syracuse, who becomes Ernie’s lifelong friend.
I liked The Express. It opens with racism, but evolves into a great footballer story, owing to screenwriter Charles Leavitt and novel writer Robert Gallagher. Some would argue that, in the 1950s and 1960s, an African-American had to excel to be recognized. This is often true, even today. It was true for Ernie Davis.
Leavitt’s handling of Ernie’s story is pretty decent. Ernie is painted as a great athlete, and a Christian able to forego the temptations of stardom, including womanizing. It’s a great script.
Director Gary Fleder might have gone overboard with game scenes showcasing Ernie’s talent, though. I wished for more background. I’m sure Leavitt included more details in a script, likely cut to conform to Fleder’s vision.
Brown, as Ernie Davis, does not do too much with his character, perhaps not to disappoint. I had hoped for more heart and emotion. He’s too reserved in this film.
Quaid, as Schwartzwalder, is convincing, especially when he tells Ernie that he shouldn’t even think about talking to any of the white girls at Syracuse, that it would not be tolerated. Henson, as
Brown in a bad toupee, is good as an arrogant and accomplished, but caring, athlete. One head scratcher is Fleder’s pick of 36-year old Henson to play a man in his early twenties. There are plenty of great African-American twenty-somethings who could have been chosen.
Miller, also cast in Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna, is J.B., the best friend anyone could ask for, always there for Ernie. Miller is a down-to-earth everyman. And Dutton, as Ernie’s grandfather, is a likeable doting grandfather. Dutton usually plays angry men; it’s nice to see him “nice.”
Noteworthy are Justin Martin as the young Ernie, Aunjanue Ellis as Ernie’s mother, and Nicole Beharie as Sara Ward, Ernie’s girlfriend.
The Express is a great family movie and intro to discussions about racism. It’s not vulgar, and nearly Disneyesque, in spite of being a Universal Pictures film. Overall, it is an enjoyable football tale worthy of a place in football movie collections.