by Mel Valentin
Period sports dramas don’t get any more formulaic or earnest than "The Express," a biopic of Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win college football’s highest honor for an offensive played, the Heisman Trophy in 1961. Sports dramas also don’t get any more heartfelt or poignant than "The Express," in no small part to Charles Leavitt’s ("Blood Diamond," "K-Pax," "The Mighty") serious-minded adaptation of Robert Gallagher’s biography of Davis and Gary Fleder’s ("Runaway Jury," "Impostor," "Don’t Say a Word," "Kiss the Girls," "Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead") sure-handed direction.A celebrated high school athlete with more than 30 college scholarship offers, Davis (Rob Brown), decides to stay close to his hometown of Elmira, New York and play football for the Syracuse Orangemen. He’s convinced to attend Syracuse not by his allegiance to his home state or by the head coach of the Orangeman, Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), but by Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson), a Syracuse alumni and professional football player (Brown played nine seasons for the Cleveland Browns, ending his career as the all-time leading rusher). Brown convinces Davis that the tough but fair Schwartzwalder will help him become a better player and increase Davis’ chances of playing professionally.
"Solidly entertaining sports-themed biopic."
At Syracuse, Davis faces the casual, often unsubtle racism directed at African-American students. He befriends an African-American lineman, Jack Buckley (Omar Benson Miller), while waiting his turn to play for the Orangemen (freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity football). He also meets Sarah Ward (Nicole Beharie), a college student at nearby Cornell University. When Davis gets his chance, he performs spectacularly, leading the Syracuse to an undefeated season, a shot at national championship against the Texas Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl, and a year later, the Heisman Trophy.
The Express (Davis was nicknamed the “Elmira Express” by a sports reporter) hits all the dramatic and emotional beats that define the sports-as-drama genre, with the added element of Davis’ confronting subtle and overt racism in and out of football and his gradual, if ultimately incomplete, political awakening. It’s this element that makes The Express more than worthwhile viewing. Davis’ experiences serve as a useful reminder of what racism looked like (and still looks like in some part of the country). To Leavitt and Fleder’s credit, the racism in The Express is depicted without the usual heavy-handedness or sermonizing we’ve come to expect from period sports dramas.
Leavitt and Fleder also deserve credit for giving coach Schwartzwalder a character arc that never feels forced or contrived. Schwartzwalder shifts from a fair-minded coach with obvious shortcomings when it comes to race to one with a greater tolerance for and understanding of his African-American players, thanks to his father-son relationship with Davis. Then again, in football, as in other major sports, talent, desire, and effort win out, and allowing race to play a factor in who plays harms the team, the players, and, of course, the fans. In other words, sports are as close to a true meritocracy as we'll ever get in public life.Not surprisingly, Dennis Quaid gives another solid, late career performance as Ben Schwartzwalder, but Rob Brown ("Coach Carter," "Finding Forrester") acquits him well as Ernie Davis, giving a more naturalistic, more emotive performance than he’s given in the past. As Davis’ best friend on and off the gridiron, Omar Benson Miller brings an all-important light-hearted touch to his performance as Jack Buckley. Unfortunately, as a male-oriented sports drama, female characters are barely onscreen and when they are, they're relegated to emotional support roles. Still, that's a minor criticism to hold against "The Express." After all, sports dramas are the modern-day equivalent of what used to be called “women's pictures” (melodrama to you and me). As a “men's picture,” "The Express" is more than credible as entertainment. On occasion, it's even enlightening.
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originally posted: 10/10/08 09:00:00