Based on the life of Ernie Davis, the Syracuse running back who became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, The Express raises the following rhetorical question: Was Davis' life really that by-the-numbers bland or have the filmmakers airbrushed out all the prickly, complicated details? The answer doesn't matter, of course, since the film is dull and generic any way you slice the pie, but it's hard to believe that the struggles of a black running back prior to the Civil Rights movement could rendered as such a PG-rated gloss, like the pages of a children's storybook. But then, that's become the formula of other sports movies on overcoming segregation, such as Remember The Titans or Glory Road: Long on inspiration, short on specifics.
Then again, it's possible that Davis was in fact the straight-shooting hero and graceful martyr as played here by Finding Forrester's Rob Brown; unlike his predecessor as Syracuse's running back, Jim Brown, he seemed more inclined to keep his head down and just play, rather than assert himself in the maelstrom surrounding. In that sense, he was well-suited to play for Head Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), a tough-as-nails X's-and-O's man who didn't care about what happened off the field as long as it didn't affect what happened between the lines. But throughout Davis' time at Syracuse, both men had to deal with racism, sometimes from within the team, but mostly in hostile spots like West Virginia and Texas, where epithets (and garbage) were tossed down from the stands. As much as Davis and Schwartzwalder tried to focus on the game, circumstances force them out of their shells.
Though based on a biography by Robert C. Gallagher, The Express instead seems based on a book report of the same source: Davis' three seasons in the Syracuse program, from 1959 to 1961, are reduced to broad generalities in atmosphere and character. Even Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson), who had a contentious relationship with Schwartzwalder and a tenacious, larger-than-life personality through his pro years and in his acting career, is tame as a pussycat here. Director Gary Fleder tries to show how Davis and Schwartzwalder overcame their head-in-the-sand attitudes about the changing times, but mostly he wants to establish rooting interest and preserve Davis' memory in amber. Considering that the Cleveland Browns retired Davis' uniform before he ever lived to play a game for them, the gesture seems pretty redundant.