Express, The (2008): Inspirational Sports Film, Starring Rob Brown as First Black to Win Heisman Trophy

Based on a true story, “The Express” is an inspirational sports film, which follows the extraordinary life of college football hero Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy.

Reportedly, Davis’ personal dignity, and fight for equality and respect, changed the face of the game, while his civil rights story has inspired several generations.

As a message film that wears its liberal ideology on its sleeves, “The Express” is easy to digest, but there is not much for the audience to do but nod with approval, since the picture steers clear of any potential conflict or controversy. As scripted by Charles Leavitt, working from the book “Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express” by Robert Gallagher, and as played by Rob Brown (of “Finding Forrester” and “Coach Carter” fame), Davis comes across as a symbolic figure for a country grappling to move past its long-held views of people of his color, rather than fully-fleshed individual.

Though his name was Ernie Davis, fans knew him as “The Elmira Express.” The saga unfolds as one unprecedented, extraordinary journey, in which Davis shattered not only sports records but also perceptions of what was possible for an African-American at the time. Born in 1939 and raised in poverty in Pennsylvania coal-mining country by his grandmother and grandfather (Charles S. Dutton) before moving to Elmira, New York, Davis hurdled social and economic obstacles to become one of the greatest running backs in college football history.

All the figures that you expect to find in upbeat inspirational biopics exist in this story, from persistent coaches to those who present obstacles to his odyssey. Here, under the guidance of legendary Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder(Dennis Quaid), Davis is depicted as a hero who surpassed Jim Brown’s achievements, emerging as the first African-American player to be awarded the Heisman Trophy, college football’s highest individual honor.

Decorated veteran Schwartzwalder was a Southerner with a single vision of a national championship and hardened ideas about how the world worked. Though he and Davis clashed mightily, he taught the player everything he knew about football, just as Davis helped him learn the true meaning of victory.

As the growing civil rights movement divided the country in the 1960s, Davis became a symbol for achievement that transcended the gridiron. Refusing to flinch from others’ prejudices, Davis achieved all his goals until he faced a challenge that would make most men crumble. He joined the ranks of black pioneers by teaching a generation tolerance, inspiring a movement that smashed barriers on and off the field.

While it’s good to see Gary Fleder working, it’s also disappointing to observe his impersonal approach to the material. Fleder began his career as a gifted indie director in movies like the neo-noir “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” (1994), but then switched to helming routine genre items, such as “Runaway Jury” and “Kiss the Girls,” which any hack in Hollywood could have tackled.

Produced by John Davis, who oversaw some of Will Smith’s star vehicles (“I, Robot”) and actioners (“Behind Enemy Lines”), “The Express” is well mounted and enjoyable, but ultimately, it’s the kind of film that has few artistic merits other than its historical goal and ideological intent.


Ernie Davis – Rob Brown
Ben Schwartzwalder – Dennis Quaid
Jack Buckley – Omar Benson Miller
Jim Brown – Darrin DeWitt Henson
Pops – Charles S. Dutton
Young Ernie – Justin Martin
Bob Lundy – Geoff Stults


A Universal release presented in association with Relativity Media of a Davis Entertainment Co. production.
Produced by John Davis.
Executive producers: Derek Dauchy, Arne L. Schmidt, Ryan Kavanaugh.
Co-producer: Adam Copland.
Directed by Gary Fleder.
Screenplay: Charles Leavitt, based on “Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express” by Robert Gallagher.
Camera: Kramer Morgenthau.
Editors: William Steinkamp, Padraic McKinley.
Music: Mark Isham; music supervisors, Peter Afterman, Margaret Yen.
Production designer: Nelson Coates; art director, Seth Reed; set designers, David Tennenbaum, Randy Wilkins; set decorator, Denise Pizzini; costume designer, Abigail Murray; sound, David Obermeyer; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Scott Martin Gershin; special effects coordinator, John Milinac; visual effects coordinator, Sara Docksey; visual effects, CIS Hollywood.

MPAA Rating: PG.
Running time: 127 Minutes.