The Express (The Ernie Davis Story) - 3 Stars (Good)
When Hollywood screenwriters tackle a true story based on a book, they sometimes take surprising liberties while telling the story on the big screen, as if the real story was not good enough to tell. "The Express" is such an example.
Make no mistake, The Express is a very good movie that teaches some important lessons about getting along in a diverse culture while growing up in the 1940s, and its message is timeless because racism - despite our progress - still exists in America.
It is unfortunate that the title of movie The Express was not expanded to be more easily recognizable by the generations that followed. A better title would have been "The Elmira Express - The Ernie Davis Story". No one living in another generation would relate to The Express.
This movie is based on Robert Gallagher's book, "Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express, the Story of a Heisman Trophy Winner".
Ernie Davis was one of the greatest college football players to ever step onto the field. He was also the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy as College Football's Player of the Year in 1961. Davis followed the great All-American Jim Brown (arguably the greatest running back ever) to Syracuse to play for the Orangemen. He was given Jim Brown's No. 44 to wear during his career.
The Express, written by Charles Leavitt and directed by Gary Fleder, could not leave well enough alone by recognizing the obvious ill treatment Ernie Davis received from white racist fans, his opponents on the field, his own teammates, his fellow students, hotel owners who would not allow African Americans as guests, etc.
By attempting to make an unjust and bad situation even worse, they altered the actual facts of some games and scores in the film, and used some really racist language to inflame the moviegoers.
This was most unfortunate because many other issues about the treatment of the three African American players on the team were well handled.
Ernie Davis would lead Syracuse to its first NCAA National Championship during his sophomore season in 1959 when the Orangemen went undefeated, beating No. 2-ranked Texas 23-14 in the Cotton Bowl. He was also voted Most Valuable Player in the Cotton Bowl as a junior in 1960, and MVP of the Liberty Bowl as a senior in 1961.
Davis became the first African American to become the No. 1 pick in the 1962 NFL Draft. He was selected by the Washington Redskins, who traded him to the Cleveland Browns for Bobby Mitchell and a first-round draft choice.
In the summer of 1962, Davis was diagnosed with acute monocytic leukemia, an incurable cancer of the blood or bone marrow, and died on May 18, 1963. More than 10,000 family, friends and fans paid their respects at his wake in Elmira, NY. Ernie Davis was never able to play a single game in the National Football League.
Ernie Davis chose not to fight racism with violence, but to use the football field as his way of establishing his stature as more than a talented, gifted athlete, but as a man of integrity and honor among men. Those who discriminated against Ernie Davis and people of all races should be ashamed and remorseful.
This film benefited greatly by some outstanding acting performances by Rob Brown (Ernie Davis), Dennis Quaid (Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder), Omar Benson Miller (Ernie's teammate Jack Buckley), Charles S. Dutton (Ernie's grandfather Willie "Pops" Davis), and Nicole Behaire (Ernie's girlfriend Sarah Ward).
The Express, released in 2008, had positive reviews (a 72% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes), grossed only $9.6 million in revenue, and, regrettably, did not receive a single nomination among the award organizations. Such is life.
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