Monday, October 13, 2008
By Elise Nakhnikian
The Express is one of those inspirational movies that gets to you in spite of itself.
Screenwriter Charles Leavitt and director Gary Fleder develop characters so thin you can practically see through them, then wrap them in a cloud of cliché. But the extraordinary man whose story this more or less is – and the raw shame of the racism he endured just half a century ago – burn through the fog.
Ernie Davis was a quiet kid from Pennsylvania’s coal country who found a way out of poverty through football just as traditionally all-white college and professional teams were beginning to recruit black players. As a star at Syracuse University, which won a national championship during his tenure, Davis got lots of laudatory press coverage, but he and his team were also on the receiving end of vicious slurs, death threats, and more.
Davis died at age 23, before he ever had a chance to play professional ball, but he managed to make history even so, becoming the first black player to win a Heisman Trophy. He was also voted MVP at the 1960 Cotton Bowl in Dallas – and ushered out of his own celebration early, since it was held at a whites-only country club.
The Express sketches Davis’s story in strokes so broad they could demarcate the lanes on a highway. Virtually every scene in the movie is about racism, a reductive impulse that surely does his memory a disservice. And they sometimes twist the truth into melodrama, as if the casually uttered racial slurs, social ostracism, and derogatory assumptions that kept black Americans “in their place” in his day needed embellishment. One of the most shocking set pieces in the movie, a game played in West Virginia where the other team’s fans rain racial epithets and broken glass on the Syracuse players, never happened at all.
Two polar opposites represent the possible responses to racism in the unsubtle universe of The Express. The first is Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line in major league baseball by walking softly and swinging a big stick (“This here’s a man who’s doing a lot without saying nothing,” says an admiring young Davis). The second is pro football pioneer Jim Brown, who stands up to the injustice he encounters, earning a reputation as an Angry Black Man.
In life, Davis followed in Robinson’s path. He mostly does the same in the movie, but the screenwriters can’t resist giving him a few cinematic – but totally uncharacteristic – defiant speeches.
Davis is played by the sweet-faced Rob Brown, who played varsity football in high school and college. He seems like a nice kid, but he’s a bit of a lightweight, failing to project the self-confidence and strength of character needed to achieve what Davis did.
The fault lies mainly in the script, which tells us almost nothing about Davis’ inner life. But it doesn’t help that Brown seems anachronistically young, a still-adolescent 21st-century American kid rather than the young man that Davis probably was by his early 20s. People grew up faster in those post-war years, and black kids from the wrong side of the tracks probably grew up fastest of all. And people who knew Davis invariably talk about his gentle grace, a grown-up quality that Brown can’t quite muster.
The movie’s structure feels numbingly familiar. First, sepia flashbacks show us the shy, stuttering young Ernie, a fatherless boy with a gift for sports. Next we meet Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), Syracuse’s craggy head coach, who shows up with Jim Brown, a recent Syracuse grad, to woo Davis. Then Davis arrives at Syracuse, where the college boys actually wear beanies and the white kids all stare at him coldly.
He instantaneously befriends one of the team’s two other black players, Jack Buckley (played by the likeable Omar Benson Miller) and just as promptly falls for the first black coed he sees (an adorable Nicole Beharie). Meanwhile, he and Schwartzwalder stumble awkwardly into a sort of father-son bond, though none of the relationships in this movie has enough heft to feel truly significant.
We see a lot of football along the way, which is rendered tedious by bad camerawork and editing. Slow-motion close-ups of Davis running fail to convey a sense of his legendary speed, though we do get a sense of his famous footwork. Too many balls spiral slowly through the air toward the camera, and there are too many WHOMPs as one player tackles another. And one sequence that keeps switching between present-day footage and old (or old-looking) black-and-white is just plain annoying, shredding the action into incomprehensibly tiny bits.
Yet some of Davis’ accomplishments are so impressive it almost doesn’t matter how they’re portrayed. When he finally got his Heisman, the popping flashbulbs, freeze frames, and swelling music were corny and predictable – but I was so choked up I didn’t really care.