It is no secret that nearly all sports movies follow a standard template, with little deviation between them. What makes them distinguishable is the subject matter itself and the stylistic way the director tells the story. Even when the film is based on a true story, the script hits the expected beats with drum machine-like precision.
But The Express is one of those rare exceptions. It differs in that for the first two-thirds of the film it follows the expected formula for its genre with no real deviation. But when this true story reaches its expected climax of crowds cheering the underdog’s victory and its lead character, Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), becoming the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, the credits don’t roll. Instead, the film continues on, shifting adroitly into biopic mode to tell the rest of Ernie’s bittersweet story. Those familiar with Pride Of The Yankees (1941) or Brian’s Song (1971) may guess towards where the film changes direction.
Those who know their sports history will know how the film ends, but such knowledge will not diminish the story’s impact. Director Gary Fleder does a good job at capturing the bone-thudding crunch of being on a football field. He also manages to re-create the ugly, casual racism of that period, especially the type seen when Davis and his team travel into the South for games in West Virginia and Texas. The story presents Davis as not someone who sets out to tear down racist barriers in society but does so simply by his desire to be the best football player he can be. Fueled by his competitive nature, he disregards his coach’s advice to let his white teammates score when playing games in the south. Later, Ernie accompanies his cousin to a civil rights meeting and realizes that he can do more to inspire on the field than he could do marching in a protest.
Perhaps most importantly, is that this film reminds us that this was a time that still exists in living memory for many people. My own father graduated from Holy Cross University the spring before Davis lead Syracuse’s team to victory over the Holy Cross Crusaders in the fall of 1958. The Express helps to remind us on the eve of our country possibly electing its first African-American president how far we have come in terms of our dealings with race. And even though there is still room for improvement, the fact that Davis helped to set in motion many of the societal changes of the last half century goes to show that his story can still inspire today.