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Inspirational is an overused term, in my humble opinion. However, “The Express” can only be described as such. The story of Ernie Davis is extraordinary and it’s quite amazing to see how far African-American athletes have come over the past half century.
However, “The Express” is just the latest sports biopic to replace fact with dramatic fiction. Why filmmakers insist on doing such a thing I’ll never know.
The story of Ernie Davis is powerful enough without the added drama and cliché junk that is inserted into this film.
“The Express” is the story of Ernie Davis, the first ever African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. Davis’ success on the football field comes with racial tension and bigotry at its peak; Davis preservers to win the most prestigious award in all of college sports. Davis is unassuming and quiet but his success on the gridiron thrusts him into the spotlight and he becomes a recognized figure in the American Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s. However, before he can attain almost certain professional glory tragedy strikes in the form of leukemia. Despite a courageous battle, Davis succumbs without ever playing in a regular season NFL game.
“The Express” is very good and it gives all of us that didn’t live through this tumultuous time a short history lesson of the sports during the Civil Rights movement. However, to fictionalize the prejudice and bigotry African-American athletes faced during this period in history is an injustice to those that actually endured these challenges.
One such moment in “The Express” occurs during a late season game at West Virginia. The film portrays the West Virginia players and its unruly fans as obsessed racists. Racial slurs and obscenities echo throughout the stadium and the fans shower the visiting Syracuse players with bottles and other debris. This scene is beyond tense and an all out riot seems imminent. The only problem with this portion of the film is that it is complete fiction. Syracuse did not play at West Virginia that season – the game was played at Syracuse.
I’m sure Davis and other African-American athletes of this time faced extraordinary challenges but to misrepresent facts in this manner is par-for-the-course in this day of sports biopic films. Writers and Directors can’t seem to get out of their own way at times even when a powerful story is staring them right in the face. Hell, the filmmakers should’ve just taken it all the way with this fictional portion of the movie. Why stop with racial slurs and bottles? Why not show a Klan rally in the parking lot, or a redneck skinning a deer in the stands? How ‘bout a hangin’ at midfield before kickoff?
Nonetheless, “The Express” is well-worth the time. Rob Brown gives a strong performance in his role as Davis, but the real star of this film is Dennis Quaid and his portrayal of Syracuse Head Coach Ben Swartzwalter. Quaid is fantastic as an old school, hardnosed football coach that wants nothing more than to win a national title. In the end Swartzmiller shows another side in one of the more powerful scenes of the film.
Sam Minardi is a writer based in Charleston, W.Va.