You'd be hard-pressed to find a football fan who hasn't heard of Jim Brown. Even younger generations are familiar with his legend, if only through the endless debates over who was the "greatest": athlete, football player, running back, sports figure bringing social change.
But Ernie Davis? Get beyond a certain age, and the name is likely to draw a blank stare, even from a hard-core fan.
The truth is that Davis, a fantastically gifted and determined runner who followed in Brown's footsteps at Syracuse University, in some ways eclipsed his predecessor. Davis set the school record for all-purpose yards and touchdowns. He helped deliver Syracuse football its only national championship. He even became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, awarded annually to college football's best player (though Brown should get credit for a lead block on that one).
In "The Express," Davis gets his due. The movie, based on a book by Robert Gallagher, portrays a young man who above all else wanted to play football but grew to accept the ground he could help African-Americans gain in their fight for civil rights.
Davis spent his early years living under the steady guidance of his grandfather (Charles S. Dutton) in Uniontown, Pa. It was the late 1940s, and a 10-year-old African-American couldn't pick up empty bottles past a certain street without a violent confrontation with white peers. When Davis moved to Elmira in the early 1950s to live with his mother, things weren't much better. Though his unmatched success on the "Small Fry" squad earned him the nickname "The Elmira Express," it wasn't enough to get him a uniform like his white teammates did.
This atmosphere of racial inequality and, at times, outright hatred follows Davis (played as an adult by Rob Brown) to Syracuse. He barely has a chance to find his locker before hard-nosed coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) warns him not to "cross the line" by dating a white woman.
This tale of athletic achievement amid cultural upheaval builds to Jan. 1, 1960. It's the Cotton Bowl, and top-ranked Syracuse is playing No. 2 Texas to determine college football's national champion. (I know, that part sounds like a Hollywood fantasy, but it actually happened.) The ugliness begins soon after the team arrives (the team's hotel doesn't allow African-American guests) and only gets worse on gameday.
Shortly before halftime, things boil over into an on-field brawl, shattering any lingering notion that the gridiron could provide a sanctuary of tolerance. With his leg in pain and his team in the lead, the sophomore star Davis is pulled from the game -- as much to avoid a riot as to rest the battered back. But when Texas threatens to spoil the fairy tale, "The Elmira Express" gets back on the tracks.
That the story builds along such a predictable and worn path should ruin this movie, but the real-life circumstances won't allow it. It wasn't just a bum wheel and a tenacious defense that Davis had to contend with, as the formula goes in many sports movies. He was playing against the hate-filled ugliness of an era.
As Davis, Rob Brown has the right stuff for both the action between the lines and the drama outside them. Quaid is a good fit as Schwartzwalder, though he did a fine job projecting toughness without the gravelly voice he employs in some scenes but not others.
Just when it feels like the end credits should roll, the final act is just beginning. This is where the movie loses its footing.
Certainly the events that transpired after the Cotton Bowl deserved more than the final scenes here. Because as much as Davis accomplished in that first season with the Orangemen, he was just getting started on the football field -- he didn't win the Heisman until his senior year. And as much as Davis had gone through by the time he was picked in the NFL draft, he was far from done with confronting life's unfairness.
3 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Rob Brown, Dennis Quaid, Omar Benson Miller, Darrin Dewitt Henson and Charles S. Dutton
DIRECTOR: Gary Fleder
RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes
RATING: PG for thematic content, violence and language involving racism, and for brief sensuality.
THE LOWDOWN: True story of Syracuse University running back Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy.