Rob Brown Stars as Late Gridiron Great in Bittersweet Bio-Pic
Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) had to overcome some very humble roots on his way to gridiron greatness, having been raised in rural Pennsylvania by his grandparents until the age of 12. During those formative years, he forged a very close bond with the man he called Pops (Charles S. Dutton), a coal miner who instilled both a solid work ethic and a quiet sense of dignity in his impressionable young grandson. Those character traits would prove to be priceless to Ernie in scaling the obstacles he would encounter just because he was born black in an age when intolerance and segregation were the order of the day.
By the time his widowed mother (Elizabeth Shivers) remarried and regained custody of her son, he had apparently already developed not only the steely resolve to be the best, but also the temperament to test the country’s color-coded discrimination wherever he encountered it. Both his athletic prowess and his yearning for equality are the subject of The Express, a bittersweet bio-pic based on the best-selling biography of the same name by Robert C. Gallagher. The title comes from the nickname Ernie earned in high school in upstate New York, where he was dubbed “The Elmira Express” because of his considerable feats on the football field as a running back.
Following in the footsteps of the legendary Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson) to Syracuse University, he went on to eclipse his predecessor, leading their alma mater to a national championship while becoming the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best football player. Though drafted by the Cleveland Browns, the glory was not to last, as Ernie would succumb to leukemia at the tender age of 23 without ever having a chance to play in the NFL.
Directed by Gary Fleder, The Express does an excellent job of chronicling each of the critical touchstones in the abbreviated life of a role model worthy of emulation, whether he’s being refused accommodations in the South at a “White Only” hotel or being threatened on account of his skin color by fans from an opponent’s school. Considerable credit must go to Rob Brown for his convincing depiction of the film’s ill-fated hero as an endearing combination of integrity, vulnerability and sheer guts. Equally-effective are stellar support performances turned in by Omar Benson Miller as his teammate/buddy, Jack Buckley, and by Dennis Quaid as Syracuse Coach Ben Schwartzwalder.
Another plus is the magical production’s recreation of the period via an appropriately retro musical score along with fitting backdrops, wardrobes, mannerisms and slanguage from the bygone era via painstaking attention to detail which only add to the picture’s palpable sense of realism. In sum, The Express amounts to a fine addition to the recent genre of socially-conscious sports flicks (ala Glory Road, The Great Debaters and Meet the Titans) which highlight individual triumphs not merely in and of themselves, but for the collective meaning of those historic moments to the masses of black people ever in search of civil rights.