Ernie Davis was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. His number is retired by the Cleveland Browns, and he’s a member of the College Football Hall Of Fame. Now, he’s the recipient of his very own aggressively passable biopic. You can go ahead and order those achievements in any way you see fit.
The latest in a long series of black people breaking down barriers in a new field films, The Express is a B-movie barbeque sauce of been-there-done-that retreads. It borrows from and binges on better motion pictures like Remember the Titans; then again, all that clichéd rehashing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just because I love a delicately-cooked, rare filet mignon doesn’t mean a bacon cheeseburger from Wendy’s can’t effectively seduce me at one in the morning on a Tuesday.
Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) is a black kid, with a stuttering problem, from the wrong side of the tracks, growing up in the wrong decade in the wrong part of the country. He’s frequently harassed by ignorant, backwoods hill jacks for the color of his skin, but with the help of his loving and attentive grandfather (Charles S. Dutton), he overcomes his speech impairment and begins playing sports, mainly football. And spoiler alert--he‘s well above average. Young Ernie gets scholarship offers from over fifty schools and eventually settles on Syracuse thanks to an impassioned speech from his hero, Jim Brown.
Once he takes up residence in upstate New York, Ernie finds his adoptive hometown to be far from ideal. The football team only has two other black players and a slew of whiteys who don’t seem to appreciate their new teammate. Legendary coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) isn’t the most sympathetic to his plight, and there’s hardly any sexy women of color to show off the letterman’s jacket to. But as always seems to happen in these black-dudes-make-right films, most of the supporting cast slowly comes around, creating just the sort of awkward racial tension powder keg which propels the team to touchdown celebration dances and group sing-a-longs, and since sports movies are really only about touchdown celebration dances and group sing-a-longs, The Express works on a basic level.
As for other, more advanced levels? Well, let’s just say I’m skeptical about endorsing a movie which has no real tone, identity, or feel of its own. I’m fully aware Ernie Davis was a real person and the whole point of a biopic is to follow the basic outline of someone’s life; however, this film spends so much time frantically attempting to encompass every aspect of his life that it never stops to let us get to know him. Who was Ernie Davis? At times, The Express comes off like a long series of facts: Ernie had a stuttering problem. He was black. He runs like Roger Bannister. He was friends with one guy on his team. He lusted after some chick who went to Cornell. Magnanimous. I could have read that on a goddamn leaflet.
All of this would be understandable if The Express wanted to be a popcorn sports flick, but there‘s not even really a big game. Or a big announcement. Or a big play. It’s just a series of brouhahas, tied together by the fact they all involved Ernie Davis. You know the final scene in The Mighty Ducks when Charlie and Goldberg and all the rest of those hoodlums lay a beating on the Hawks? Well, tack on an extra forty-five minutes of footage at the end of Connie getting an abortion and Fulton Reed going to clown college and Averman working for Dell’s tech support hotline. That’s how The Express rolls.
I probably shouldn’t tell you to go see The Express because of all the reasons outlined above plus a few more, but sometimes slathering ketchup on a partially chemical, twenty-percent All-Natural bacon cheeseburger tastes just about right. See it. Enjoy it. Just promise you’ll eat something better tomorrow.