Joining the canon of African-American "first" films like The Great Debaters (2007), Men of Honor (2000), Greased Lightning (1977) and The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), each of them dully inspirational to a fault, this biographical drama of the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy is a homonym of its subject's first name. That name is Ernest.
Ernie Davis wasn't himself the Jackie Robinson of college football—fellow Syracuse University great Jim Brown, among others, had preceded him across the color line—but he's considered perhaps college's greatest running back. He encountered overt racism—after the 1960 Cotton Bowl game, for instance, he was told he could accept his MVP award at the sports banquet afterward and then immediately leave the segregated facility—yet he went on to become a first-round NFL draft pick and the highest-paid rookie player to that time.
This straightforward film spends its first hour as the cinematic equivalent of a young-readers biography, the kind of thing a middle-school kid would enjoy. It loses that tone in the second half, with saltier, albeit PG-rated, language and a discreet blouse-unbuttoning that both seem at odds with the earlier "Let's Meet an Athlete, Kids!" feel. We move from a youthful incident in blue-collar Uniontown, PA, in 1949, where Davis and his cousin Will escape a gang of a racist kids, to Elmira, NY, where, eventually dubbed "The Elmira Express," he became a youth-league and high-school football, baseball and basketball star. He's recruited to Syracuse, where future Hall of Fame coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) mentors Davis (a nicely affable Rob Brown) and the humbly righteous player in turn provides the coach Life Lessons about a Changing World.
Syracuse goes on to a national championship and the movie goes on into overtime, unsure of how to end. Not a sports cliché goes unturned in the meantime, including slo-mo images with audio of crunching sounds and thundering herds; background thunder at ominous moments; grainy 8mm historical-looking footage; and enough inspiring speeches for a year's worth of self-help seminars. Someone says, "Football is just a game" and "You're good, but he'll make you better."
Highly troubling, however, is the extreme way The Express plays fast and loose with the historical record, and while dramatization is a given in biopics, one episode here veers remarkably toward outright slander. The October 24, 1959 game between Syracuse and West Virginia University—falsely shown as taking place at WVU's Mountaineer Field rather than at Syracuse's own Archbold Stadium—paints the West Virginia fans and referees as virulently, violently racist. Aside from the fact that the game didn't even take place there, Schwartzwalder had earlier led West Virginia high-school teams to state championships, and was a beloved and respected figure with devoted fans there who wouldn't have given his teams any lip—so much so that on his death in 1993, WVU even instituted the Ben Schwartzwalder Trophy.
Lesser revisionism includes specifics of the Cotton Bowl game versus the University of Texas Longhorns—though here the movie's bench-clearing brawl actually did occur (albeit caused by an alleged racial slur to Syracuse's John Brown and not Davis). The larger problem is why the movie has two such scenes, one of them gratuitously fictional, when this film aimed at young audiences already hits the two-hour mark.