The Express Makes a Footnote into a Legend

The story of Syracuse running back Ernie Davis—the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, in 1961, two years before he succumbed to leukemia—is absolutely worthy of a big-screen retelling. Davis, who died before ever playing a down alongside Jim Brown for the Cleveland Browns, has almost become a footnote—an inspirational fairy tale. Based on a Davis biography, Gary Fleder's account is a noble attempt at humanizing the myth, but it succumbs to the worst sorts of sports-movie clichés: Its smash-mouth football scenes play like Gatorade commercials, and off the field, its characters infuse every casual aside with the dramatic gravitas of History in the Making. To his credit, Rob Brown, first seen in 2000's Finding Forrester, plays Davis with quiet subtlety (to the point where he almost disappears in some scenes). But Dennis Quaid, as Syracuse's Ben Schwartzwalder, is stuck with the thankless role of accidental civil-rights pioneer—the gruff, color-blind coach who must nonetheless overcome his own ingrained racism and internalized fears. And, like all formulaic biopics, The Express sacrifices the details for the Big Picture—hagiography without the humanity (wait, is that his girlfriend? Wife? What?), populated by sorta-enlightened Yankees, rabidly racist Southerners, and a ghost who remains as elusive as the running back no defender could ever catch.

 
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