The Express is more than just another “inspirational sports movie.” Based on real events it is the moving story of college football hero Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), two-time All-American halfback at Syracuse and the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. His courage in the fight for equality and in the face of terminal illness—he was the most celebrated college player of his time but died before his first pro game—has made him a legend on and off the football pitch.
The film’s set-up is standard for these kinds of sports movies. In this case a young gifted football player overcomes poverty to earn a scholarship to a top flight university. After a slow start he leads the team to greatness. We’ve seen it before, but the thing that differentiates The Express from movies like Pride, Glory Road and We Are the Titans is the way the film takes the story beyond where most of these others end. Most often the credits roll after the big game. Against all odds our heroes have won or nearly won the playoffs and the movie ends with a blast of adrenalin designed to make you shake your fist in the air and walk out of the theatre invigorated.
The Express takes a smarter approach. There is the prerequisite exciting big game but the story really deepens after the final touchdown when Davis points out that sports is not just about the playing of the game, it’s about something more important—what you play for. The best sports movies are never really about sports.
By refusing to play by the unspoken racist rules of the day, by being the best college player of his day, by being a role model the real-life Ernie Davis became a symbol for the growing civil rights movement and a hero to African-Americans in the way that Jackie Robinson had inspired people in the 1940s. His talent transcended race and as the movie makes clear in its final moments, he became a symbol of achievement for people of all races.
In the lead role Finding Forrester’s Rob Brown hands in a nice, natural performance that gains momentum as the story deepens in the last reel. Playing against him as Coach Ben Schwartzwalder, Dennis Quaid takes a role that could easily have been simply a walking mound of clichés and breathes real life into the character.
The Express proves that inspirational sports movies don’t have to stick to a tried and true formula to actually be inspirational.