We've seen this picture before: Rob Brown as college football star Ernie Davis is the nominal hero of
We've seen this picture before: Rob Brown as college football star Ernie Davis is the nominal hero of "The Express," but his white coach (Dennis Quaid) gets much of the credit for his triumph.
Universal Pictures

Stars on the Field but Shared Glory on Film

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 2008

Heads up, sports fans! Here's a film based on a true story about a black athlete or coach facing impossible odds.

He's trailing on the scoreboard. Racist crowds scream epithets. Some on his own team are against him. The front office is ready to pull the plug. But there's the big play! The tide turns! The crowd roars, gaining a new admiration for Our Hero, who goes on to win! Okay, quick:

Is this "The Express: The Ernie Davis Story" about the first black player to win football's Heisman Trophy? Is it "Pride," about a black swim team in a gritty neighborhood? "Glory Road," in which an all-black team wins the NCAA basketball tournament? "Remember the Titans," about the black coach who led Alexandria's own T.C. Williams High into integration and an undefeated season? "Gridiron Gang," the tale of a mostly black California juvenile detention center that fields a championship team? Or is it the grandfather of the genre, "The Jackie Robinson Story," the 1950 hagiography of the first black player in Major League Baseball?

Answer: All of the above.

The inspiring, based-on-a-true-story black sports film, renewed this month with "The Express," is a movie subgenre that has become an almost annual Hollywood staple over the past decade. It's both a social and cinematic breakthrough, finally recognizing African American lives as the stuff of legend, as well as putting more black faces on the big screen than ever before.

But hold the post-racial hoopla: The main story line in many of these films is the black athlete's relationship with a white coach or teammate, often exaggerating the importance of the white character to the actual events. Since many of these movies are soft-focus retellings of the civil rights movement, the unspoken message seems to be that blacks need guidance, nurturing and counsel from whites to achieve greatness.

In "The Express," the main relationship in the movie is between the naive Davis and his veteran coach, played by Dennis Quaid. In "Glory Road," the tension is between the white coach and the black players and racist, opposing fans. In "Titans," the tension is between the black coach, Herman Boone, and his white assistant coach -- and between the white and black star players on the team. In "The Hurricane," the story is focused on imprisoned black boxer Rubin Carter and the white Canadians who help with his legal defense.

And the more things change, the more they may not: In the old Jackie Robinson bio, half the story is about Branch Rickey, the executive who brought him into the major leagues. In a new Robinson movie, slated for release in 2010, Robert Redford has already been cast as Rickey, and director Thomas Carter confirms in an interview that this version will again be the story of both men.

"Even in our own stories, it seems like we're often just the co-stars," says Warrington Hudlin, founder of the Black Filmmaker Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit organization that develops and promotes blacks in cinema, describing the trend. "When it's told from these perspectives, it seems like the role of blacks in American cinema is primarily to make white people feel good about themselves."

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. The film version of "Gridiron Gang" was about a black coach and his nearly all-black team. "Ali," the 2001 biopic of Muhammad Ali starring Will Smith, pretty much turned on unwinding the boxer's mental clock. And "Coach Carter," a film about a black California coach who benched his entire team until their grades improved, did not turn on any white character's role. The 2005 movie was directed by Thomas Carter, no relation to the coach, who is also directing the Robinson bio.

"I wanted to make a film about black people helping other black people," says Carter, who is black, describing his efforts on "Coach Carter," which starred Samuel L. Jackson. "The studio was very supportive. But they did want to diversify the cast of the team [adding more white characters than were actually there]. It's quite often something you get pushed to do."

In American social mythology, sports is a metaphor for what society hasn't provided: a level field of play in public view, where social advantage, wealth and privilege of birth are not factors. Daddy can't help you run faster, money can't help you hit a jumper at the buzzer and social connections are not going to help you catch a touchdown pass against double coverage.

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