Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right…
I charged your judges at that time: “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien. You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s.
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
1 Corinthians 15:10
Sadly, the theaters dropped director Gary Fleder’s film before I could finish my review of it. It’s release on DVD provides an opportunity to discover what a wonderful film it is, and, better, what a wonderful person Ernie Davis was. Like many sports films dealing with racism (going way back to The Jackie Robinson Story), The Express works on two levels. It is an exciting true story sports film, though with a tragic twist; and it reveals what great courage and perseverance individuals have displayed in the fight for racial equality.
The film opens in the midst of the 1960 Cotton Bowl in which Syracuse met Texas in a brutal contest, heated as much by racial antagonism as by the usual urge to win the national football championship. In those days few teams even in the north allowed African-American athletes to play. Then it abruptly flashes back to Ernie’s childhood, the color scheme changing almost to black and white as we see two “colored” boys gathering bottles on a railroad track. They encounter a gang of white kids who surround them, demanding their bottles. Ernie’s cousin, yelling to follow him, quickly jumps onto a freight train slowly passing by. Ernie stands his ground, and when he replies to the white leader, he stutters, but refuses to hand over the two bags of bottles he is holding. Before the whites can take them from him, Ernie swivels around, and breaks through the two bigger boys standing behind him. The gang gives chase, but Ernie is too fast for them. There follows the sequence in which we see how young Ernie discovers his talent for football, first in a Small Fry league and then in high school in Elmira New York.
Teenager Ernie (Rob Brown) can not only run fast, but he can twist, dodge, and even jump over his would-be tacklers, thus becoming one of the top ball players in the state. Up in Syracuse Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) is watching movies of high school football stars who might be able to replace his prize player Jim Brown (Darrin DeWitt Henson), who has graduated and been signed by the Cleveland Browns. The last clip they watch shows Ernie making a spectacular run, so soon he has talked Brown into traveling to Elmira to help him recruit Ernie.
With just a few dozen other African-American students enrolled at the large state university, Ernie feels very much out of place, but he soon loses himself in the tough training regimen that Coach demands for his athletes. In the games that follow Ernie proves his worth, but the prejudice he encounters is equal to what his hero Jackie Robinson had endured a decade earlier. (There is a scene in which little Ernie and his family, watching on a TV set in a store window, thrill to a Robinson hit.) Wherever the team goes, they bear the heavy burden of racism, and nowhere more so than at that game with which the film begins, the 1960 Cotton Bowl, where even the referees make racist-tainted calls against Syracuse.
The exciting football scenes are interspersed with moving ones of Ernie’s family, as well as news clips from the Civil Rights Movement— of Dr. King speaking, and demonstrations. Ernie and his cousin attend an NAACP meeting at which they are urged to join the nationwide boycott against Woolworth’s Dime Stores because of the chain’s refusal to serve “Negros” at its lunch counters. To the disappointment of his cousin, Ernie backs off out of fear of jeopardizing his scholarship, but later, he protests in his own meaningful way.
Were the film to end with Ernie being awarded the prize that was denied Jim Brown, the Heisman Trophy, we would go away with the warm feeling of victory achieved through great suffering and endurance. But this film is based on a true story, and life often is not so simple—or kind. Ernie does achieve his deserved recognition, graduating from Syracuse and, like his hero Jim Brown, is recruited by the Cleveland Browns. However, the nose bleed that has been plaguing him turns out to be serious, the symptom of leukemia, a disease that in 1963 could not be cured. His life was cut short at the age of 22, so, as some of his friends say, we will never know what a great professional player he might have become. Some words of Dr. King well sum up the life of Ernie Davis, “The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.” In that respect his life was indeed of high quality ,championship-high, not just in the sport of football, but in the game of life.
For reflection/Discussion 1. What forms of racism did little Ernie face? In the Small Fry League do you think that the white leaders really ran out of jerseys before the black boys could obtain one? How does the film show that racism was not just a Southern malady?
2. Who is young Ernie’s sports hero? How does this show the importance of having a hero who is worthy? Also, we see what a warm person is his “Pop:” how must he have been a great influence in shaping Ernie’s character?
3. Coach Schwartzwalder is liberal in that he accepts African-American players, but is he really committed to racial equality? How is he like the “good people” of whom Dr. King often expressed his disappointment because of their silence and inaction in the face of injustice? How is Ernie’s protest partly due to that earlier encounter with his cousin after the NAACP meeting?jj 4. How in the film did you see the accepted values of our society as opposed to the values in the two Old Testament passages above? Why do you think the scriptwriter chose the passage from 1 Corinthians for the stuttering little Ernie to read? That is, what does it say about Ernie, as well as about the apostle Paul?
5. How does the passage from Deuteronomy apply to the game of football in the film? If even the referees were so tainted by racism that they gave unfair calls, what does this show about the rest of our society 50 years ago? What was the racial views of your family then? What role did they, or you, play in the conflict of the 1960s (assuming you are old enough to have lived through the period)?
6. How did you leave this film with mixed feelings? Any nagging question about the goodness of God in a world of diseases that can cut a life short, even a good one? How does Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words about quality and length of life show that Christians must use a different measurement than does the world? Not only in regard to longevity, but in what other ways as well—such as in regard to strength and power? To some, the film could be a tragedy: what do you think?
7. Historical/ethical note: The game between West Virginia and Syracuse did not take place in West Virginia but at Syracuse, and West Virginians have protested that the way in which they are shown as rabid racists is false. The quarterback of Syracuse’s 1960 team, Dick Easterly, has told a reporter, “I apologize to the people of West Virginia, because it never happened.” What do you think of this changing of history, a practice often followed by filmmakers, “to serve the story” rather than historical truth, as they claim? Do you think it is fair that, in order to show the widespread racism of the time, the filmmakers tarnish the citizens of a state, even when they were not present at the game?
The Bonus Features are valuable additions to the film. There are the usual “Deleted Scenes” during which you can listen to the director explain why each one was cut. “Making of the Express” takes us behind the scenes to show the camera crew at work and brief interviews with filmmakers and cast. For me the most interesting is “Making History: The Story of Ernie Davis,” combining interviews with relatives and teammates (and James Brown) with archival shots of Ernie Davis in action. In “Inside the Playbook: Shooting the Football Games” the film’s football expert explains how real football players were hired so that real hits are made, and why the filmmakers re-arranged the order of the plays from the actual games. The last feature “From Hollywood to Syracuse: The Legacy of Ernie Davis” is part biography and part promotion of Syracuse University.