The Express is a movie with heart and a fascinating slice of American history to boot. In this delightful surprise of a movie, director Gary Fleder brings to life a hidden piece of football history, the story of Ernie Davis, the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner. Davis made his mark on history as much for breaking the color barrier that encased football’s most coveted award as for his gridiron prowess.
Fleder tackles the uneven turf of 1960s prejudice in this most American of sports with nuanced directness, but he keeps the focus on Davis, where it belongs.
A small-town boy born on the wrong side of the tracks in rural Pennsylvania, a teenage Davis finds himself just across the line in New York. It is here that he makes a name for himself, first as a high school football prodigy and then as an unbeatable college football legend, and is confronted with a far more formidable line to cross.
This film is an honest portrayal of the people and the times surrounding one young man’s life, a life that thrust him into making choices that would affect not only himself, but the greater African-American community, and ultimately the country as a whole. Ernie Davis had the guts, grit, and giftedness to carry it off.
Rob Brown gives a straightforward, unpretentious portrayal a likeable athlete who happened to come along at a tense juncture in history. In Brown’s performance, we see him wrestle with this tension head on, with a determination that made Davis an inspiration to his team, his coach, and the watching world. With so many anti-heroes populating our front pages and our movie screens, it’s refreshing to see a real hero resurrected from the dusty pages of history, in an uplifting, watchable film that avoids the typical sports film pitfalls of sentimentalism and didacticism.
Fleder has scored a touchdown in telling Davis’s story with heart, humor, and heart-stopping excitement. Even those who have no interest in football may find themselves caught up in the sport and Davis’s athleticism in the masterfully filmed and fast-paced game scenes.
Dennis Quaid brings an experienced weight and subtlety to his portrayal of the crusty yet tenderhearted Ben Schwartzwalder, the legendary Hall of Fame football coach who trains Davis at Syracuse University, but is thrown off-kilter by this earnest “kid from Elmira.”
The excitement builds as our admiration grows for Davis and Schwartzwalder, and the rest of the team, as the real game of respect, honor, and integrity play out in the interweaving of their lives on the uneven playing field of history.
Like pawns shifting in a living game of chess, they gradually awaken to the realization that they can take charge instead of resigning themselves to their assigned black and white squares. This is a history lesson that no one will want to miss.