Thanks to our friends over at Arts a la Mode, I was able to see an early screening of The Express, the movie about the life of Ernie Davis which opens this Friday. The film chronicles the life of the former Syracuse running back based on the book written by Robert C. Gallagher. Since it is hard to tell anyone, especially those who are not sports fans, that a film is must-see, I will say that it is a should-see. Read on for the review.
I had first heard about the film while watching the Cuse's first football game against Northwestern this season. I watched the game with my friend who is a Syracuse alum; needless to say by the end he was not happy with the team's performance as they lost 30-10. The majority of Syracuse alums are not pleased with the football team's performance this year. They are 1-4 and it is not likely they will win another game all season. AD Daryl Gross is under instense scrutiny to do something to remedy the malady of losing that has stricken the football program. Greg Robinson is 8-32 since taking over for Paul Pasqualoni. In fact, the movie was premiered in Syracuse the day before the Orange played Penn State. The Orange lost that game 55-13 and that was with Penn State applying the brakes. The state of Syracuse football is truly a trace of its former glory. But I digress, at least the film gives Orange fans a chance to relive a golden era of their football history.
As I entered the theatre, I had very little knowledge of Ernie Davis. I had not read the book and knew only that Davis was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. By the end of the film I was thankful for my education on the man. The story begins naturally in Ernie's childhood facing the struggles of poverty and racism in coal-mining country. His main source of strength comes from his family, particularly his cousin Will and his Father, Willie "Pops" Davis. Pops is played brilliantly by Charles S. Dutton, whom you may remember from the TV show Roc or from his outstanding performance as the janitor in Rudy. Here is one the best scenes from the film with Dutton opposite Sean Astin.
Dutton delivers again as the strong, sacrificing patriarch of the Davis family who works in the coal mines to provide for those around him. A poignant scene that first introduces what role sports and race played back in that portion of American history is when young Ernie(Justin Martin), Will(Justin Jones) and Pops are gathered outside a store window watching Jackie Robinson play on the television. Dutton really conveys the sense of pride that African-Americans must have felt seeing Robinson break the color barrier.
The film shuffles and somewhat hurries along(as it has to) to Ernie excelling at the game of football as a young man and into high school. That is where the coach of Syracuse Ben Schwartzwalder played by Dennis Quaid decides to recruit him. Quaid's performance is by no means Oscar-worthy, but he does display well the ruggedness but mentoring nature of Schwartzwalder's coaching style. Let's put it this way, its a well done performance by Quaid, well above his showing in Jaws 3. Ben realizes he can get the edge in recruiting Davis from Elmira by using running back Jim Brown. Brown had just finished his time at Syracuse under Schwartzwalder and was headed to the Cleveland Browns. Darrin Dewitt Henson gives a performance that will make any sports fan smile. He portrays the proud personality of Brown and the edge with which he dealt with the issues of race and how he approached the game of football.
Brown approaches Davis, who is in awe of him, and tells him of what life will be like in the world of college football. I was happy to see that in one scene where Brown and Davis are discussing Syracuse Brown teaches Davis about lacrosse. Jim Brown was an all-american in lacrosse at Syracuse and regarded by some as the best lacrosse player of all time. The college age Ernie Davis is played by Rob Brown, who apparently is the man now dog. Besides starring in Finding Forrester, Rob also was recently in Stop Loss and has some sports movie experience from his role in Coach Carter, which of course starred Samuel L. Jackson. Rob Brown brings out the quiet nature of Ernie's personality while showing the fire and ability he possessed on the field.
Davis ultimately chooses Syracuse and starts practicing with the Varisty even though he cannot play as a freshman. From the beginning it is apparent that Davis is a special talent and that draws the jealousy of some of his teammates, but also pushes them to be better. The football sequences for the movie are executed well. Of course, all the authentic 1960s football gear is on display and they even have the politically incorrect mascot of Syracuse from back in the day. Back then they were the Orangemen and had a native american in full garb and face paint as the mascot. I think we can all agree Otto the Orange is a much better symbol for the university. The football sequences are laced with slow-motion, focus adjustments, and a few special effects. It's similar to the effects in Any Given Sunday but with less glitz and glam.
The story follows Syracuse through the realization of Schwartzwalder and his coaches(assistant coach Roy Simmons played by Clancy Brown[Head guard Mryon Hadley from Shawshank Redemption, had to throw that in]) to use the full house formation to utilize Davis, to playing at West Virginia in a night game. This is where you start to see the blatant racism displayed in certain parts of the country at that time. Davis and the other Syracuse black players are told to keep their helmets on and to play by the "rules" of the time. This included not crossing the goal-line. Davis refuses to comply and goes into the endzone to the aggrevation of the fans and his coach. Schwartzwalder then comes to realize that although he is not directly a racist himself, bowing to the rules of others who would hold his black players down is just as detestable. The issue of race comes to a head as the team travels to Dallas for the 1960 Cotton Bowl. There Davis and his black teammates Jack Buckley(Omar Benson Miller) and Art Baker(Laroyce Hawkins) face near riots over their participation in the game. They are sent to a small closet of a room in the hotel and face mass heckling from the public and media. It gets to the point where Syracuse AD Lew Andreas(Chelcie Ross who played coach Dan Devine in Rudy and George in Hoosiers) tells Schwartzwalder not to play Davis. Ben of course refuses and Davis is named MVP as he leads the Orangemen to victory after returning from an injury. Also of note was the fact that Davis played both ways; as a running back and defensive back.
As I stated earlier I have not read the book, but I have heard that the movie portrays Davis as moving into the role of activist as it came to racism. The book apparently discounts this, but there can be no debate that by his mere actions and success, Davis was a champion of civil rights whether he was outspoken about the subject or not. He was a hero the same way Jackie Robinson was a hero, and his refusal to change his actions on the field due to the desires of the ignorant people of the time makes him the important man of character the movie shows him to be.
*Possible Spoiler Alert(depending on how much you know about Ernie Davis)*
Again, I did not know the whole story of Davis' life before I watched the movie and most of that comes from the fact that Davis never had a flourishing pro career. I did not know why until the end of the movie, which culminates with Davis winning the Heisman Trophy and meeting with JFK afterward. The impersonation of JFK's voice was absolutely awful, probably the worst thing about the film. They could have gotten Dan Castellaneta who voices Mayor Quimby(and Homer) on the Simpsons and it would have been miles of improvement. The story ends sadly though when Davis, who has been drafted by the Cleveland Browns is diagnosed with luekemia. To think what could have been with Davis and Jim Brown in the same backfield, it would have been the most legendary sports tandem of all time. One of the most emotional scenes in the movie is when Schwartzwalder gets Davis to speak with a prized African-American recruit, much like Jim Brown did with him. The recruit's name was Floyd Little, who of course went on to become a great running back for Syracuse and in the NFL. In the scene Little is displaying his exuberance on getting the chance to play football in college and beyond as Davis emotionally shares with him what he learned about life through football and the heartbreaking reality that he would never get to pay it again. The audience in the theatre, which was into the movie all the way through, literally was crushed when the sentence on the screen told of Ernie's death at age 23.
This movie taught me all I did not know about Ernie Davis and I'm glad it did because without the hollywood press about the movie that we often scoff at, I would have most likely never have learned his story. Even if some of the minor facts are off, the message and the man are brought to life. The acting is a bit wooden at certain parts and the writing is not the best, but it is the story that makes this a worthwhile film for any sports fan to see.
4 and 1/2 Shacklefords(out of 5)