“It feels strange to write about my life,” narrates Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) at the start of The Express. “I can’t tell you the moment I knew what I wanted to be.” But even if he doesn’t remember, the movie version of his life fills in — grandly. He’s 10 years old (played by Justin Martin) in Uniontown, PA, collecting glass bottles along the railroad tracks with his brother Will (Justin Jones), when a group of gnarly white boys comes at them from the other direction. They taunt Ernie for stuttering, dare him to resist, and demand he turn over his bottles.
At this moment, in movietime anyway, Ernie finds his calling. Tracked by the camera, Ernie takes off, bounding through brush and over rock formations, speeding away from his pursuers. “People in town,” he says in voiceover, “would always ask me: what are you running from?” Even if Ernie won’t say it, The Express shows exactly what he’s running from — white boys. And though he soon discovers a structure for his running on the football field, in high school and then at Syracuse University, Ernie is repeatedly reminded of this start, as he faces down one racist defensive thug after another. These encounters follow a pattern laid down by movies much like this one: as they crouch on the line of scrimmage, the villain calls Ernie a name, Ernie sets his jaw, and once the play begins, he’s otherworldly, his singular prowess signaled by the film’s slow motion and big music.
The formula is daunting. Long before he goes on to become a two-time All American halfback at Syracuse and the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy, Ernie’s aspirations are shaped by his grandfather (Charles S. Dutton). Seeing the boy’s talent in high school, Pops steers him away from the coal mines where he and Will both work. Impressed that Ernie shows self-discipline in overcoming his stutter (the child stays up late to practice reading Bible verses), Pops brings him along to watch baseball games on a store window TV. When they catch a vintage-black-and-white glimpse of Jackie Robinson, Pops turns to Ernie, beaming, “This is a man who’s doing a lot without saying nothing!” As the TV close-up of Robinson is reflected onto the child’s upturned face, the film underlines its point: Ernie has found a famous role model.
Per biopic formula, he finds other inspirational figures who will also be familiar to viewers, in Martin Luther King, Jr. (another TV image) and Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson), the most brilliant running back at Syracuse. A great success in high school, Ernie is being recruited by Notre Dame when Syracuse’s Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) decides he needs a replacement for Brown, who’s on his way to Cleveland. Much like Jackie Robinson (who played himself in his biopic), Jim Brown and Ernie are repeatedly confronted with racism as they make their ways to the tops of their professions. Brown’s struggle is indicated in a very brief scene where he stands before reporters prodding him to lament the fact that he hasn’t won the Heisman, despite being so obviously deserving. He calls out the game they’re playing: “If I say that, the papers tomorrow will tell the story of the angry Negro who doesn’t know his place.” he pauses for dramatic effect. “I know my place,” he continues, “It just may not be where you like it.”
Ernie absorbs this lesson and shares it, repeatedly exploiting his fame at Syracuse (1959-1961) to educate his ignorant classmates, teammates, opponents, and opposing fans (who are especially aggressive in the South), even his coach. While Schwartzwalder is keenly aware of his star halfback’s virtuoso talent, he also keeps his focus on football, opting to keep Davis off the field rather than risk racist heckling. “I have to think of the team,” he explains, at which point Ernie argues that he and his fellow black players are also part of “the team.”
The lesson is made all the more poignant, of course, when Ernie’s leukemia is revealed. The first signs are nosebleeds, represented in close-ups Ernie’s worried expression in the mirror or, more dramatically, his blood dripping onto the belly of his beautiful girlfriend Sarah (Nicole Beharie). After all the battering he undergoes on the football field, this scene feels particularly calculated: they’re cuddling on a bed, making plans for their wondrous future. His relationship with Sarah, a Cornell student, has evolved in snippet-scenes throughout the film, initiated after Coach ordered first-year Ernie not even to think about dating a white girl (teammate Jack Buckley [Omar Benson Miller]) tells Ernie afterwards, “We call that the White Girl Speech. We all get it”).
The film’s inclusion of any part of Ernie’s romance with Sarah is directed toward this revelation on the bed. Previous to this, she appears in the bleachers or watching Ernie play on TV, her thrilled face and clasped hands a helpful reflection of the pride experienced by the rest of his family and “community” (who, aside from Pops and Will, are relegated to a blurry background). Apart from the tedious sports movie conventions (seasons marked by subtitled dates and games, games narrated by TV announcers, history telegraphed in headlines), the film stays focused on Ernie’s relationship with Schwartzwalder. The mentor-mentee prescription is adjusted somewhat, as Coach accepts wisdom from his outstanding, about-to-die player. Still, even as their complex friendship is comprised of moments both tender and contentious, their story is is blocked again and again by clichés.