Keep On Converting
The Express highlights a life spent going the distance
By Jared Peterson
Note: This review contains plot spoilers.
Early in The Express, we learn what Ernie Davis is made of. A child of nine or ten, he and his cousin are walking along the railroad tracks, collecting bottles for the refunds. From nowhere, a mob appears—boys their age, all white, enraged by a breach of racial boundaries. Threatened and outnumbered, Ernie’s best answer is to run. But rather than away, he chooses to go toward and through. At full tilt, he parts the mob. A hundred yards gone, home free, he allows a smile.
Ernie and his family have watched with excitement and pride the careers of African-American barrier breakers like Jackie Robinson and Jim Brown, a running back for an integrated squad at Syracuse University. Inspired, Ernie excels in several sports, football especially; by his senior year in high school he is sought after by dozens of colleges, among them Syracuse. Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) comes bearing an offer, accompanied by the legendary Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson), who convinces Davis that the coach can provide opportunities and challenges that may propel him to an NFL career. At Syracuse, speed and determination earn Davis his moniker, “The Express”. But double standards and ingrained racism threaten to break his stride.
The Express lends insight to its corner of history by bringing us with Davis and his African-American teammates on forays outside of the uneasy tolerance of a Northern university and into the institutionalized discrimination and virulent racism of a pre-civil-rights South. These are truly ‘away’ games, bringing them through the looking glass and down into a gauntlet of hatred. They enter arenas as bottles, trash and racial epithets are hurled their way. They suffer unsportsmanlike conduct and far worse from players and officials. More than the Orangemen’s tolerance (which is tenuous at times), it is Davis’ talent that inflames and infuriates, and he struggles to maintain his composure and his pride and just win some games.
There are many lessons here, each one powerful and necessary; but with such a full curriculum, I’m afraid there’s little room for subtlety. The atmosphere of cruelty and hatred is generated with remarkably little dialogue from its perpetrators. Opposing teams employ the standard brutes, their linemen grunting and snarling like fat, armored pit bulls. As tackles crunch and music swells and gushes, our view changes somewhat randomly—from high-speed to slo-mo, crystal clarity to grainy haze. And the coach’s halftime speech succeeds in spite of some well-worn clichés. But all told, the movie gets you where you need to go. A bob, a weave, and it’s nothin’ but daylight.
Nearly all the violence is on the field, but much of it is offsides: late hits and pummelings and more than one bench-clearing brawl. There is swearing in the film—a bit of everything, uttered both in anger and in frustration. But some of the language is searing in its malice—horrible racial slurs, including the n-word, which should rightly make viewers wince. Children, accompanied or not, may benefit from a debriefing about the history (and the reality) of hate speech.
The Orangemen went undefeated in the fall of 1960 and bested the University of Texas in the Cotton Bowl—Davis was that game’s MVP. He became the first African-American to be awarded the Heisman Trophy, and joined his hero Jim Brown on the roster of the Cleveland Browns. Tragically, he would never play a down; diagnosed with leukemia, Ernie Davis died at the age of twenty-three. The Express compresses, but never diminishes, the tremendous impact of his short life.
At an October 12th screening, these previews were shown (all titles not yet rated unless otherwise specified): Fast & Furious, another in the fast, furious racing franchise; The Tale of Despereaux, animated adventures of a very brave mouse; The Day the Earth Stood Still, proof that Keanu Reeves will not rest until he has absolutely nothing to do in a movie; Seven Pounds, a good-Samaritan drama with Will Smith and Rosario Dawson; Inkheart (PG), an intriguing-looking fantasy based on a series of young-reader novels; and The Soloist, a triumph of the human spirit starring Robert Downey, Jr., and Jamie Foxx.
Jared Peterson rushed for no yards in high school. He writes good, though—sample his work below or at http://proweirdo.blogspot.com.