When we initially meet Ernie Davis, who eventually becomes the first African-American to win the Heisman trophy, he’s running like the wind to escape a group of white racist thugs. Unfortunately, that’s roughly the degree of sophistication you can expect from The Express, a sports biopic so tediously righteous that even the inspirational halftime locker-room speech during the Big Game sounds like it could have been penned by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Recruited by Syracuse head coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Quaid, gruff but tender), Davis, who’s played as an adult by the affable but lightweight Brown (Finding Forrester), led his team to the Division 1-A championship in 1959, when he was just a sophomore. The Express focuses almost exclusively on that particular road to victory, leaving both the Heisman and Davis’ subsequent death from leukemia at age 23 for a speedy, tearful epilogue. Things go mostly swimmingly on the home field—though Davis has to work to be accepted by his mostly white teammates, who didn’t get along terribly well with previous black Syracuse superstar Jim Brown. But it’s an altogether different matter at the games played down South, where Davis and the other two Negro players aren’t even allowed to stay at the same hotel as everyone else, and where their cartoonishly bigoted opponents vow to send them back to Africa.
As a sports movie, The Express, directed by studio hack Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls, Runaway Jury), embraces every cliché known to the genre—you could randomly substitute footage from Hoosiers at regular intervals and only the differing shape of the ball would likely confuse people. But it’s as an inspirational saga of the fight for equality that the film truly reeks. “You’re a smart kid—I don’t have to spell it out for you, do I?” asks Coach after subtly warning Davis to stay away from white girls on campus. But I guess we in the audience must not quite be so bright, since the movie stops dead every five minutes to deliver yet another earnest sermon. It’s still trotting them out even with seconds remaining on the clock! Let the guy play ball.