The Express is a rare inspirational sports film that remembers who sports are supposed to inspire: other people.
While in many ways the story follows familiar genre conventions, The Express isn't just about individual achievement, following your dreams, or coming together as a team. It isn't even just about facing social pressure and overcoming racist opposition, like many earlier racially aware sports films (Remember the Titans, Glory Road, Pride, etc.)—though race does play a major role in the film.
The Express is aware that what Ernie Davis (likeable Rob Brown of Finding Forrester) does out on the field matters not only to him and his teammates and family, to his coach, Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid, solid as always), or even to the other team. It matters to anonymous fans of color who come to his games or who spot him in the team bus from an adjacent bus on the road. "Now that's something, for colored folk around here to open a newspaper and see your name, Ernie," his brother Will (Nelsan Ellis), an NAACP activist, points out to him.
In a way, The Express is not the story of a football player, or of a team, but of a number. The number is 44, the number of the white and black Syracuse jersey worn by three great black running backs from 1954 to 1966. The number passed from the legendary Jim Brown, whom some believe was the best running back of all time, to Davis, the "Emira Express," the first black player to win the prestigious Heisman Trophy (some have felt Brown should have won it first), and finally to future Denver Broncos great Floyd Little.
The Express is about passing the torch. In 1950 the torch is carried by Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, whom young Ernie (Justin Martin), growing up in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, sees in storefront televisions and posters. Ernie struggles with stuttering, and it means something to him that Jackie "is doing a lot without saying nothing."
Later, moving to Elmira, New York, Ernie finds his outlet in small-fry and high school football, and idolizes Brown, who has just graduated from Syracuse and signed with the Cleveland Browns. Syracuse coach Schwartzwalder, trying to fill the hole in his roster, recognizes Davis's stellar talent, and realizes that every college team in the country—every integrated team, that is—will be after a high-school player of his caliber.
So the coach turns to a secret weapon: Jim Brown himself (charismatic Darrin Dewitt Henson), whom Schwartzwalder shrewdly persuades to go to Elmira and help recruit Davis for the Orangemen. What good is Jim's success, Schwartzwalder somewhat cynically argues, if he isn't willing to give a helping hand to the next kid? It's an argument Jim grudgingly accepts for one reason: He knows Schwartzwalder is a good coach who will help Davis reach his full potential. Throughout the film Jim is a welcome presence in the background of Davis's career, and toward the end Davis has a similar opportunity to pass the torch to another up-and-coming player.
There is also a passing of torches from Ernie's grandfather Pops (terrific Charles S. Dutton), a dignified patriarch who with his wife raises Ernie and Will until Ernie is twelve, when—to Ernie's evident chagrin—their long-absent mother shows up with a new husband to take the boys back. The film doesn't tell us whether she was widowed or divorced (according to Wikipedia, Ernie's parents were separated "shortly before his father died in an accident"), but the awkward reunion scene effectively engages themes of family stability and instability, of absent fathers, unreliable mothers and grandparents who step into the gap. Things ultimately work out, though, and Ernie's whole family provides crucial support at important turning points.
Pops is a firm believer in hard work, study, and achievement, and he doesn't let Ernie's stuttering problem exempt him from taking his turn reading the Bible during evening devotions. One evening Ernie painstakingly sounds out a verse that will come to resonate the spirit of his life: "But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me" (1 Cor. 15:10).
Ernie does work harder than the others. He's like a deer on the field, dodging, twisting, leaping between, around and over opposing players. Actor Brown, who played football at Amherst College, is persuasive in the role, and stellar cinematography and sharp editing convey the drama of the action even to a sports outsider like myself while maintaining a fan-pleasing authenticity. (I know this because I brought my sports-loving father to the screening. As a sports non-fan, my definition of a good sports film is one that my dad and I both enjoy. The Express has the goods.)
Ernie is one of three black players for the Orangemen, along with Jack Buckley (a very funny Omar Benson Miller), his best friend on the team. Jim warns Ernie that Syracuse won't be an easy place for him, and naturally Ernie faces antagonism on his own team as well as on campus. He even clashes with Schwartzwalder, who recognizes his strengths but has a pragmatic attitude about the world they live in. Quaid's performance is one of the film's highlights; I don't know how many movie coaches could deliver what Jack later calls "the white-girl speech" without coming off like a Hollywood heavy, but Quaid manages to combine complicity with bigotry and a measure of sympathy in a gratifyingly nuanced way.
Quaid's performance aside, if The Express has a flaw, it may be pushing its salutary depiction of race and racism just a bit too far. Among other things, it might have been nice to see at least an occasional incidental white character who didn't evince some sort of racism.
From what I've read about Davis's life, his actual relationship with Schwartzwalder may have been more congenial than the film suggests. Another fictionalization concerns an important game against West Virginia University that really occurred in Syracuse, but in the film is moved to Morgantown to provide an ugly scene of virulently racist West Virginia fans throwing rubbish at the integrated Orangemen, while the WV Mountaineers take brutal cheap shots at Davis and the referees make one skewed call after another. (West Virginia fans have cried foul at this license, though it seems to be true the Mountaineers weren't integrated at that time.)
Certainly the resistance Ernie faces at the Cotton Bowl in Texas, including not being allowed to stay at the hotel with his teammates—or the country club where the award was given—is factual. (Ernie's teammates' reaction to the latter snub is among the film's most gratifying moments.)
Nicole Behaire is appealing but underused as love interest Sarah Ward, who has a couple of nice scenes but isn't in the movie enough to make it entirely clear, in a mildly sensual bedroom scene late in the film, whether they're married or just lovers (apparently the latter is the case). In a PG film, this moment seems somewhat out of place, though it would have been less so if they were married.
After his college days, Davis signed with Cleveland along with his hero Jim Brown, but they never had a chance to play together, as the film shows. It makes for a more poignant, less traditionally triumphant ending than most sports movies. Whether in spite of this or because of it, The Express ranks among the most moving and memorable films of its kind.Discussion starters
- What early experiences helped shape Ernie's direction in life? What did Ernie bring to those experiences that someone else might not have? Did Ernie become a great football player more because of who he was or because of things that happened to him?
- More than once, Ernie and Schwartzwalder clash over whether it is prudent for Ernie to continue to play in the face of opposition. What is at stake from Ernie's point of view? From Schwartzwalder's? How do you decide whether a matter of principle is worth the potential risk?
- Which characters changed the most over the course of the film? How did they change? Which changed the least?
- How is Christianity depicted in the film? What positive elements are there? What negative elements? Is it a fair depiction?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Express is rated PG for "thematic content, violence and language involving racism, and for brief sensuality." The gridiron action includes some unnecessary roughness and cheap shots, including multiple incidents of repeated blows to a player after being tackled. The n-word is used along with other expressions of racism, and there is some crass language, including several uses of God's name in vain. In a mild bedroom scene, Ernie playfully unbuttons Sarah's blouse, but it goes no further than that (though their relationship is apparently intimate).
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