Office Christmas Party
Another reminder that allowing your cast to madly improvise instead of actually providing a coherent script with a scintilla of inherent logic often leads to…
"The Express" is involving and inspiring in the way a good movie about sports almost always is. The formula is basic and durable, and when you hitch it to a good story, you can hardly fail. Gary Fleder does more than that in telling the story of Ernie Davis ("The Elmira Express"), the running back for Syracuse who became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, in 1961. Davis was drafted by pro football, but then leukemia was discovered, he never played a pro game and died in 1963. He was 23.
Set during Syracuse's undefeated 1959 season (actually two years before Davis won the Heisman), the movie shows him as the MVP at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. He was informed he could be present to receive his trophy, but could not attend the banquet because it was in a segregated venue. Most of his teammates boycotted the banquet. Most. I'd like to talk today with the few who didn't.
The film remembers a time when black players were unwelcome in the South. It shows racist fans screaming at him and throwing beer cans at the West Virginia and Texas games. He had to enter hotels by back doors and sleep in servant quarters. This all took place well within the lifetimes and memories of many people. Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, but the Dodgers didn't play in the South. Davis was far from the first black star on a college team; Jim Brown preceded him at Syracuse, and how well I remember cheering beside my dad as we watched J.C. Caroline play for the University of Illinois in 1953-54. He was an all-American, but I recall the uproar when a barbershop in Champaign refused to cut his hair.
What makes "The Express" special is that it focuses not only on football but on the relationship Davis had with his coach, Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid). Schwartzwalder, who beat out 50 other schools (including Notre Dame) to recruit Davis, wasn't a racist by the standards of that time, which is to say he was a racist by today's standards. Not overtly, but as Quaid subtly shows in his performance, the coach had a certain mental distance from African-Americans. He promised Davis he would develop his awesome ability, and he did. In the process, getting to know Davis was part of a fundamental development of Schwartzwalder's attitude. They both became better men because of their friendship. The film is about football, but that relationship is its deeper subject.