October 10, 2008 The Express
Studio: Universal Pictures Rating: PG for thematic content, violence and language involving racism, and for brief sensuality.
The difficult journey of college football's first African-American winner of the Heisman Trophy is now being told onscreen.
Ernie Davis is one of the greatest football players you may not have heard of.
Rob Brown plays the gridiron hero in "The Express." Davis was an outstanding player at Syracuse University, but he died of leukemia before getting the chance to play professionally. That's part of the reason his tremendous achievements got a bit lost over the passage of time.
Dennis Quaid portrays Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder, the man who convinces Davis to play for the Orangeman.
Of course, Davis becomes a great player and leads Syracuse to victory after victory. But football is just a part of his story. Both on and off the field, Davis is constantly reminded of his race and the prejudice of others.
With a claim that's it's based on true events, "The Express" does a decent job of telling Davis' story and portraying it in an entertaining manner. The performances of the lead actors are solid and the football action is well-staged and compelling.
But as we all know after watching "We Are Marshall," Hollywood takes dramatic license when it comes to these types of movies.
One pivotal scene involves a Syracuse game against West Virginia University in Morgantown, where a bunch of racist hillbillies go wild because a black man has the audacity to help a team beat their beloved Mountaineers. It's an understatement to say West Virginians aren't portrayed in a very positive light. In fact, things get so bad that Coach Schwartzwalder, who was a former WVU football star, worries a riot's going to break. Trash and racist slurs come flying out of the stands at a rapid pace.
There's only one problem.
It never happened.
The game supposedly played in Morgantown was actually contested at Syracuse. The racist West Virginia crowd is a Hollywood invention.
I'm not saying Davis didn't encounter racism. Of course he did. But he didn't on that day in Morgantown. Mainly because he wasn't even in Morgantown on that day. If it was a small thing I would let it slide, after all this isn't a documentary. But it's a major part of the story. It's a pivotal moment. It's designed to make you feel a certain way as you watch what unfolds and it sets up the movie's finale.
But it is also a lie, plain and simple.
The people who were on the Syracuse and West Virginia teams in 1959 and again in 1960 when the Orangeman really did play in Morgantown say nothing like what's portrayed in the movie took place.
But the lying doesn't stop there.
The movie also takes a shot at Schwartzwalder. He wasn't just a WVU grad, he was also a West Virginia native from Point Pleasant.
People who knew him and who played for him say Schwartzwalder was no racist. But you won't get that fact from this movie. Unfortunately, Schwartzwalder is no longer around to defend himself. The Hall of Fame coach died in 1993.
Despite its many positive qualities I can't recommend "The Express." For me, when a film presenting itself as being based on fact uses despicable fiction to tell its story, that's a deal breaker.
No thanks. Reality can be ugly enough without writers, producers and directors reinventing history.
On my rating scale, "The Express" Strikes Out. This is not a reflection on Ernie Davis the man or the player. It's a call about a very poorly made film.
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