Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
Years ago, I reviewed a musical score Mark Isham created for The Express: The Ernie Davis Story. I was intrigued by the film based on a book (Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express by Robert C. Gallagher) about Ernie Davis, the first African American football player to win the Heisman Trophy. I really wanted to see this film, but never got around to doing so…until it aired during the day recently and I just happened to be home to watch it.
Growing up in Pennsylvania during the late 1940s, Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) lives with his extended family, including his same-age uncle Will Davis, Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) and grandfather Willie Davis (Charles S. Dutton). Ernie relocates to Elmira, New York after his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) returns newly married and able to afford to raise Ernie. While in Elmira, Ernie enrolls in a Small Fry Football League and does well as a running back.
Years later, Syracuse University football head coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) is searching for a running back to replace the graduating Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson). Impressed with what he sees in Davis, he recruits him and Davis plays in the 1959 football season, leading the team to several victories. But his performance on the team is not without some issues, mainly that of racism in many of the areas in which the football team is required to play. His performance on the field in 1960 is inspiring and helps lead to Syracuse’s first national championship.
In 1961, Ernie Davis wins the Heisman trophy, completing his senior season at Syracuse. He is signed to a contract with the Cleveland Browns, but an ongoing health problem forces Davis into the hospital for medical testing. He is diagnosed with leukemia and, though unable to play, the Cleveland Browns honor Ernie Davis by allowing him to suit up and run out with the team during a televised game.
Ernie Davis died on May 18, 1963. He was only 23, but in that short time, Ernie Davis became a role model for so many young men. The Express: The Ernie Davis Story is an homage to a young man who faced adversity and excelled in spite of, or perhaps because of it. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat the time period and the hardships Davis faced, allowing us to see the political and cultural climate of the time. Black players were not allowed to room in the same hotels as white players. They weren’t allowed to ride in the same places on buses. They faced extreme prejudice and received death threats in many arenas in which they played. Just getting on an NFL team was difficult for a black man – the Washington Redskins refused to draft Davis because of his color.
And through it all, Ernie Davis learned something. Every achievement he reached was achieved not only for him, but for blacks everywhere. He was a mentor for future stars and, even though he never got to play a game in the professional arena, Ernie Davis will always be a shining example for all. The film was very well done, albeit a bit rushed. There are some unfortunate historical inaccuracies in the film that were committed for dramatic effect, but the message of this film is not lost. It is meant to further already inspirational man that Ernie Davis was.
The Express was an enjoyable film and I’m glad I finally got the opportunity to see it. Kudos to Rob Brown for such a dramatic portrayal of such an inspirational young man taken from the world too soon.
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