The Express is a film based on the life of Syracuse University football star Ernie Davis, the first African American to win a Heisman Trophy. But for all of us who are tired of clichéd sports flicks, the film offers something that is not just surprising, but rare: a story about strong and meaningful relationships between African-American men.
With the exceptions of Talk to Me (2007) and The Five Heartbeats (released more than a decade earlier in 1991), black characters on film rarely get a chance for consequential, layered interactions outside of high-fiving and other meaningless expressions of machismo. Given the industry standard, director Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury, The Imposters) deserves much kudos for framing the relationships between Davis and his grandfather and his black teammates with a level of respect and dignity. Hopefully, this new direction will become part of a permanent trend.
Like other socially conscious sports films, including Glory Road and Remember the Titans, The Express skillfully renders the dramatic experiences of Davis and his teammates as they made sports and civil rights history. Davis was dubbed "The Elmira Express" in high school because of his athletic prowess on the field. In an age where football players are more often the focus of suspicion and cynicism, his life story is an example of the kind of personal fortitude that made the game a fan favorite.
The inherent violence of the game is powerfully underscored by the retelling of the events surrounding a 1959 game in West Virginia in which Davis, along with other black players, are physically attacked on field by rival fans. The movie also recounts the story of the infamous Cotton Bowl, played that same year against the University of Texas in Dallas, in which Davis and other black players received death threats for playing in the game. They won 23-14.
Unlike similarly themed films in which the white characters are cast as white knights, Davis and his teammates are shown to rely not on good-hearted whites, but on each other for the support and confidence they need to survive, on and off the field. The sense of alienation oozes from the screen as you watch Davis and his teammate walk across the cold, isolated, lily-white campus. There is a clear sense that these young black men are their only source of comfort, as they make their way in a strange and hostile world.
The film features a strong ensemble cast led by Dennis Quaid, Charles Dutton, Omar Benson Miller and, especially Rob Brown (Finding Forrester, Coach Carter), who channels Davis in every scene. Quaid is also very effective as stoic coach Ben Schwartzwalder, and Dutton is quietly powerful in his brief scenes as Pops.
After languishing in studio turnaround for nearly a decade, The Express does an excellent job of chronicling each of the critical touchstones in the abbreviated life of a worthy role model. It did less than stellar at the box office on its opening weekend, pulling in just $4.5 million. But this may be the kind of quiet movie that builds an audience slowly and ultimately speaks mostly to people who never thought they would be interested in a football film.
Gil Robertson IV is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications that include the Los Angeles Times, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Essence and Black Enterprise magazine.