'The Express': A Tale of Football and Awakening

Touchdown: Rob Brown plays Ernie Davis, who helped to integrate college football.
Touchdown: Rob Brown plays Ernie Davis, who helped to integrate college football. (By Chuck Hodes)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 10, 2008

Have you heard of Ernie Davis? If you have, you'll love "The Express," a classical sports biopic of the Syracuse running back who in 1961 became the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy.

And if you haven't -- well, you'll love "The Express," too, if only because Davis's story is so worthy of attention and respect. Born in 1939, Davis was reared by his grandfather in a Pennsylvania coal town until the boy moved to Elmira, N.Y., to live with his mother and stepfather. He quickly emerged as an athletic prodigy, and in 1959 he was recruited by Syracuse University, replacing Jim Brown, who was on his way to becoming a superstar Cleveland Browns running back. (He even inherited Brown's Syracuse jersey number, 44 -- but no pressure!)

Rob Brown portrays Davis with sympathy and restraint, and director Gary Fleder does a good job conveying the myriad lines -- physical, personal, political -- Davis had to cross simply to be his best. From the film's opening sequence, when young Ernie outruns a gang of racist thugs in Pennsylvania, to the pivotal Cotton Bowl game against the University of Texas in 1960, "The Express" documents the indignities of being an African American "first." (They range from epithets and outright violence on the field to hostile stares from Syracuse classmates.

As warm as Brown's portrayal of Davis is, it's Dennis Quaid as Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder who provides the movie's most fascinating figure. Schwartzwalder became a reluctant pioneer for civil rights as his integrated team withstood epithets, bottles and death threats while playing in the Deep South. Fleder portrays the two men's complicated dynamic with observant humor and subtlety, for the most part avoiding the most bathetic sports-movie cliches. (Only one scene of someone crying in the rain.)

Quaid, with his hair cropped to a Kennedy-era burr and his voice a gravelly bark, personifies the raincoat-and-fedora coach, whose political awakening is only ancillary to his deep competitiveness. After he gives Davis what a teammate calls "the white girl speech" (i.e. don't date them), that same teammate explains that Schwartzwalder "likes winning more than he dislikes Negroes."

But by the time the Orangemen square off against the Longhorns for that historic 1960 bowl game, Schwartzwalder's inner compass has moved. "Don't you let anyone steal history away from you," he tells his team during a gruffly emotional halftime speech. Spiked with stirring scenes such as these, the games in "The Express" (whose title derives from Davis's nickname, the Elmira Express) take on even deeper meaning. Filmed with pulverizing accuracy, they bristle not only with physical action but also historical and political symbolism.

If you've heard of Ernie Davis, you know to pack your handkerchiefs for this film. If you haven't heard of Ernie Davis, pack a few more. In either case, do see "The Express." It finesses a cinematic hat trick: It's entertaining, deeply moving and genuinely important.

The Express (129 minutes, area theaters) is rated PG for thematic content, violence and racist profanity, and brief sensuality.

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