“21 straight lines, five yards apart. That is a football field. But there are other lines you don’t see that run deeper and wider. All the way through the country, and aren’t part of any game.” Those are the lines that Ernie Davis is forced not to cross due to the prevailing attitude of the day and those that stood for it. These lines — racism and discrimination — as The Express painstakingly tells us, represented the greatest obstacles of Ernie’s life. If Spike Lee was to ever direct an American football film, this would be it.
The movie is based on the true story of Ernie Davis, a champion African-American college football player. Taking place during the years of 1958-1962, it chronicles his rise as an integral part of Syracuse University football team and the fervor surrounding him becoming the first African-American to win the prestigious Heisman Trophy. The interesting factor of the film is that not only does it delve into Ernie’s inner struggles but it also focuses on the relationship between Ernie and his head coach, Ben Schwartzwalder.
Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) was to Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) as to what Cus D’Amato was to Mike Tyson — a father figure. The difference between the two is the precarious position Schwartzwalder was in — during this time, a white man’s whole-hearted acceptance of a black man was unheard of and it put his and his family’s life in danger. The coach’s will to risk all and to develop and support Ernie were what ultimately shaped them both and the chemistry between Dennis Quaid and Rob Brown beautifully pictures this. Think Nelson Mandela and Franà§ois Pienaar in Invictus but having the message of inspiration (overcoming the odds in both fields) instead of unity.
By saying ‘overcoming the odds in both fields’, one may ask what it is that I mean by this. Well, from what we see in The Express, the interpretation of ‘both fields’ in Davis’ life is: The football field where he displayed his great physical prowess, and the field of life — oversimplified, Ernie’s life was a game where he had to hurdle over more obstacles, than any man should have to, in order to achieve the success his incredible skill positioned him for. Ultimately, he reached the touchline of these fields and upon doing so set a record — he became the first black player to receive the Heisman Trophy and elevated the Syracuse team to its first National Championship.
Davis’ legacy is well portrayed on the big screen, although the film is like a player’s sports bag that is just about to enter the Olympics — there’s a bit too much to carry. There is an overly lengthy running time of 130 minutes. Two hours plus may seem like the right time allotment for this subject matter but the film is dominated with a lot of on-field on-screen time — whether it is the training or the major games, that, although there are known to be some historical inaccuracies, are depicted in all their glory. Director Gary Fleder would have better served the movie had he done a better balancing act between the on and off field drama.
The Express chooses not to be a documentary and is instead presented in a feel-good film form instead (a good decision). And while I won’t necessarily call this a tear-jerker, it is undeniably an inspirational and credible addition to the great sports films in cinema. It’s no Oscar winner, but like Ben Schwartzwalder says, “It’s not about winning trophies, it’s about winning games.” Yet, if football was a genre in film and an award was given to it, The Express would be competing for the best picture (it would have a better than average chance to win too).