When it comes to sports films, American football is the pinnacle. Even as an Australian. In terms of great cinema, they’re fast-paced, often combining the high-stakes action with heartfelt drama. And with the right cinematography, they showcase stunning game choreography and fantastic playing sequences. Basketball films come a close second, but not being a contact sport, it’s never quite as hard-hitting (literally and figuratively) as Gridiron.
One such film is 2008 biopic, The Express: The Ernie Davis story.
Ernie Davis is a two-time All-American — similar to the AFL’s ‘All-Australian’ — halfback. In 1961, he became the first African American to win the prestigious Heisman Trophy. The film focuses on his varsity scholarship days at Syracuse University in the height of the civil rights movement, from his recruitment in 1958 to his graduation, and the NFL draft in 1963.
At the time of Davis’ high school graduation, he was swarmed with college offers. After a visit and recommendation from Jim Brown, a Syracuse graduate who had just been drafted to the NFL, he chose the reputable New York state university. Interestingly, Brown went on to have a successful acting career, spanning 50 years.
Davis may have been a star footballer, but as an African American man in the early 60s, overt racism and segregation were everyday occurrences. In the film, his innocence as a new university recruit soon turns political, and Davis develops a sense of racial pride. He uses his role on the field to strive for change and challenge the ‘normal’ attitude shown toward African Americans.
It’s a role Rob Brown (Coach Carter, Netflix’s Shooter) is more than talented enough to take on. In particular, there is a scene at the dinner table where Davis sits with his grandparents and Coach Schwartzwalder during the recruitment process. Ernie's grandparents question Schwartzwalder on Syracuse University; it's football program, but importantly how black students are received there. You can see a distinct sense of excitement in Davis’ curiosity. More broadly, Brown makes compelling transitions in Davis’ attitude from that of an adolescent to an adult. From his curiosity at the dinner table at the beginning of the film, into a sense of joy during his first months' training, which in due time turns to the heartbreaking realisation that despite he was all but begged to attend Syracuse, he is not wholly welcome there.
Head Coach Schwartzwalder is played by screen veteran Dennis Quaid. Known for 80s/90s classics like The Parent Trap, The Day After Tomorrow and Jaws 3 (more recently, he stars in TV’s Fortitude, currently streaming on SBS on Demand), Quaid uses his skills and experience to bring Schwartzwalder convincingly to the screen. As a recruiter at Davis’ house, he’s charming and as a coach he is relentless; forcing football knowledge down the young athletes’ throats and initiating gruelling exercises as they prepare to go into the win-at-all-costs season. Schwartzwalder has his own arc, a man who’s privileged positional allows him to believe that whatever happens on the field, stays on the field. To Schwartzwalder, it’s all about athletic ability. His ‘colourblind’ approach means he refuses to acknowledge that race plays a key role in the game and needs to be addressed.
As Davis proves to be the key to Schwartzwalder’s perfect, undefeated season, Davis also pushes Schwartzwalder to his own limits, getting him to rethink his own beliefs and forcing him to see the world form Davis’ point of view.
Another screen regular is Charles S. Dutton (Gothika, A Time to Kill) who plays Davis's grandfather, Willie ‘Pops’ Davis. Dutton is a brilliant actor, as he’s shown since the mid-1980s. As ‘Pops’ we see a charming intelligence; asking all the right questions of Schwartzwalder while he’s trying to recruit his grandson to Syracuse.
We know many films based on true stories are exaggerated to create more suspense or drama, The Express doesn’t differ here. Some of the incidents are known to be embellished to heighten the conflict that Davis and Schwartzwalder have between each other. The state championship game played in Texas, however, is very accurate and remembered for its brutal racism. In real life, another African-American player Art Baker recounts being spat in the face, while fellow black player John Brown repeatedly had racist slurs hurled at him from his opponents.
Davis, being one of Syracuse’s superstars was regularly faced with racist taunts and rough play, but his calculated responses and resilient attitude made Davis a great role model at the time. During one game an opponent was repeated twisting Davis’ ankles, to which Davis asked the player, what exactly he was trying to achieve. Embarrassed, the opponent apologised.
The type of person that Ernie Davis was alone, is reason enough alone to watch The Express. The fact that it’s a great film with compelling drama and excellent gridiron sequences are welcome additions.
Travis is a Wongatha man living on Peramangk country. He is a Film Critic and Freelance Writer. Follow Travis @TravAkbar
The Express: The Ernie Davis Story airs Tonight, 9pm on NITV. (There is no SBS On Demand catch-up for this title.)