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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Express (The)

As someone who once worked as a stand-in for Jabba the Hutt, it is obvious that exercise is something I have equated with potential muscle strain, and nobody wants to pull a groin muscle, right? That’s reason enough for me to stay on the couch and avoid going outside where that big yellow fireball in the sky makes everything hot and might cause me to perspire. I leave that foolishness to those crazy people who do things I can’t even begin to understand. Some even pick up balls and participate in activities called ‘sports’ which purposely make them sweat and get dirty. Can you imagine? I think they are ‘touched’ in the head.

Actually, I kid. I know a little something about sports. After all, when I was in college I was required to take P.E. classes. Granted, I took bowling for my credits, but it did involve movement and balls, heavy ones at that. Once I wrapped up my requirements though I gave up bowling for sex. The balls are much lighter and you don’t have to change your shoes to participate.

That was the last I thought about sports until I wanted to get into graduate school (or “gradual school” as it is called in The World According to Garp because you go and go and go and eventually you get out). I wanted to go with my best friend, Pamela, to USC in LA (which I have discovered I must identify as the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, for some people who live in the East and Midwest who continue to ask me if I mean the ‘University of South Carolina’ or if am talking about ‘Louisiana’ whenever I mention LA. Sigh). For us to get into what was (and still is) a very competitive program we would need at least one rocking letter of recommendation. Fortunately, Pamela was the cousin of a famous graduate of the same school who had been a star football player while going there and had since gone on to become the 1968 Heisman Trophy winner and was currently playing for an NFL team in New York. The trick was getting him to write the letters because he was not known for doing favors for anyone, not even family members.

What luck we had! Our target’s mother, who lived in San Francisco, came down with a bad case of pneumonia. Could there be a better opportunity for the two of us to swoop in like angels and take good care of this “fragile flower” in her time of need, especially since Pamela knew her worthless cousins weren’t going to offer to spend 24/7 with their own mother. She also knew that our mark would make an appearance because he was a “Mama’s Boy” at heart.

Aunt Eunice was feeling fine in just a couple of days, after guzzling what seemed like gallons of OJ
and chowing down on macaroons like they were vitamins. Meanwhile Pamela and I composed our letters of recommendation so that her “cuz” wouldn’t need to do any more than sign his well-known autograph at the bottom of the page and we’d be (hopefully) set.

I thought I was prepared for his arrival, but when he walked through the doorway and was framed by the outside light brightly illuminating him from behind it was breathtaking to see just how big a man he actually was, the kind of behemoth I wouldn’t want to make mad and have jumping out at me late at night. He stared daggers my way. “Who are you?”

“I’m here with Pamela. We’re taking care of your Mom.” I tried to muster the cheeriest smile I could but if looks could kill I’d be dead by now. Obviously this was going to be harder than I had anticipated.

Over the next 24 hours Eunice played hostess as much as patient and cooled down her hot-heade
d son with the killer good looks. Pamela even got him to laugh a few times, though I thought it was kind of weird that he laughed the hardest when she cut herself with a butcher knife while chopping vegetables for some homemade soup. Eventually we did approach him about the letters, but instead of using the ones we wrote he said he’d like to take a stab at putting together his own. I never did see the finished product, but he managed to slice through all kinds of red tape and the next thing I know Pamela and I were both enrolled and sharing an apartment while we finished up our education. I even attended a football game once. Okay, so it was because I had a free ticket and was dating one of the players at the time, but still, it counts. All I really remember is the announcer introducing the cheerleaders that day. He told the crowd of about 85,000 at the LA Memorial Coliseum “Here come the girls. They may not know squat about birth control, but they sure know their Trojans!” It was a dumb joke then and it is a dumb joke now.

There’s nothing dumb about
The Express though. Now here is a football movie that is all you could ever want when it comes to football action, and it is still so very much more. Based on the book “Ernie Davis: Elmira Express” by Robert Gallagher, The Express follows the short but extraordinary life of Ernie Davis, a trailblazing football player who faced down enormous obstacles of racial prejudice just to get the opportunity to play the game of football. No matter how difficult the circumstances, Davis courageously continued to try, even when there were personal threats made against him, whether they came from places the team traveled to or from some of his own disgruntled white teammates. Despite these pressures, he proved himself such an outstanding player that he won over his team, who eventually voted him their Most Valuable Player, and not long after he became the first African American to ever win the Heisman Trophy.

Playing the adult Davis is drop-dead gorgeous actor Rob Brown (Stop-Loss), who actually played varsity football while attending Amherst College in Massachusetts. He imbues Davis with such natural charm and “aw shucks” modesty about his own talents that it is impossible not to love Ernie and root for him from the get-go.

Watching Davis face the realities of overt racism for the first time as he ventures away from home is almost as jolting an experience for the audience as it must have been for him. I suppose because we have (at least in my social circle) moved so far beyond the mind-set of the late 1950s, hearing and seeing crowds tossing out the “N” word (along with bottles, food, and whatever else they can aim) at the African American players as they enter the football field is genuinely disturbing. Davis and his two other black teammates, J.B. (Omar Benson Miller; Miracle at St. Anna) and Keir Thirus (Eugene and the Worm) seem to handle it better than I did just hearing it as a viewer. I was clutching my pearls and feeling the vapors coming on.

I give kudos to director Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury; tv’s “October Road”) for keeping the movie solidly in Davis’ world and not jumping over to Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid; Vantage Point) as the focal point, which would have been easy to do. Not only is Quaid an obviously much better known actor, but Schwartzwalder is an interesting character on his own. Perhaps Fleder saw 2006’s Glory Road, a movie about the similar struggles of an African American basketball team that somehow was hijacked part-way through and became less about
the team and all about their white coach, played by Josh Lucas. I hate the whole idea of Hollywood making movies about African Americans and their struggle for equality and then turning it around to be about the white person who allegedly swoops in like a messiah and saves the day. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen here, and it didn’t happen in real life either. Davis faced down the people who didn’t want him to play football and he showed them he could be the best at his game and at the same time proved himself the better human being. If only they ‘got it.’

Unfortunately, as this is a real story and not one that Hollywood can write a happy ending for, you should expect to shed some tears before it is over, and you most likely will whether you want to or not. I swore I wasn’t going to let it affect me as I already knew what was coming, but that charismatic Rob Brown is too much to resist. It’s no secret that Davis died far younger than he should have, but he was an inspiration to a generation then, and, with
The Express, he hopefully will be so again.

There is so much to love about The Express and it seems a shame that in its first weekend it didn’t even crack the top five grossing movies. I can’t recommend this film highly enough and I encourage everyone to take an express trip to the Essex Cinemas to check it out ASAP. You’ll be glad you did.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Pamela and I are still best friends 30 years later. I can’t say I’ve seen her cousin again though. I know he went into show business for awhile, but the last I heard he ran into some legal troubles and who knows where he went from there.

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