I tend to believe everyone has a story to tell, every life is unique, and the quality of a biography's storytelling usually depends on how you look at the life. In other words, with the right storytelling, any life can be dramatic. Or undramatic.
Never has this been more true than in the case of The Express, screenwriter Charles Leavitt and director Gary Fleder’s new film based on the short life of Syracuse University football star Ernie Davis (played by Rob Brown).
Davis isn’t the world’s most famous football player… or the world’s most famous civil rights activist… but he certainly did some remarkable things worthy of a story. The problem is:
Leavitt and Fleder do little to make the actions and events of Davis’s life SEEM remarkable; they instead tell an overly-familiar, paint-by-numbers story of a young black athlete trying to come of age and play football in the racist mid-twentieth century.
To be fair, the opening seconds of the film show promise… it begins with college football teams facing off on the line. “Ready for this, spook?” one of the white players sneers at Davis. “I’m gonna kick your black ass back to Africa.” The play snaps into action, and Davis is buried under a mound of white players… who proceed to punch the shit out of him.
This “mini-scene” only lasts a few seconds, but it’s an effective way to kick off the movie. Unfortunately, it’s the last scene with any bite for a long time… and most of the movie that follows doesn’t live up to the in-your-face violence of these opening moments. It's not a "bad" movie; it's just uninspired and tame.
The story begins with Davis as a young boy growing up in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where he’s harassed by white children… who try to beat him up but are too slow to catch him. It’s obvious Davis has incredible football skills, but he doesn’t consider putting them to use until he and his mom move to Elmira, New York, where he becomes a high school football stud. He’s also a top-notch student, and he eventually receives over fifty scholarship offers from various universities.
Meanwhile, at Syracuse University, head football coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) has a problem: his superstar player, Jim Brown, is graduating, leaving an unwelcome hole on the football team. Schwartzlander has scoured the country looking for a replacement, but he’s found no one… until he watches a film of lightning-fast Davis on the gridiron. At first, Schwartzlander doesn’t want to pursue Davis because black athletes are “too much trouble,” but with the help of Brown himself, he convinces Davis to give Syracuse a shot.
Much of The Express’s second act focuses on the Davis-Schwartzwalder relationship. Davis is a black athlete who won’t use his celebrity to ruffle feathers and speak out against racism. Schwartzwalder cares about only one thing—winning—and he’s willing to condone players’ and opponents’ racism in order to keep people happy and not jeopardize victories. Over the course of the film, both Schwartzwalder and Davis come to realize “winning” is about something more. Davis—prodded by his activist cousin Will (Nelsan Ellis)—learns he has a larger responsibility than simply scoring, and he begins speaking out against racism. Schwartzwalder also begins standing up to racism (although thinking back on it, he really only does this one significant time).
The movie’s biggest flaw is that none of the racism… or the moments when Davis or Schwartzwalder stand up to it… ever seems all that fresh, palpable, or powerful. This isn’t to diminish the evil of racism, it’s just to say that we’ve seen a LOT of movies about racism, and the racism in The Express seems… well… like “racism lite.” Not that the racism itself is “lite,” but Leavitt and Fleder give it almost no visceral impact. Sure, there’s a healthy dose of the “n-word,” and we see rednecks booing black players, and African-American athletes are told they can’t use front doors or sleep in white hotel rooms, etc., etc., etc. But we’ve seen all this before… and this time, none of it lands with any force. We don’t FEEL the pain of the racism because it’s all depicted in stale clichés.
As a result, Davis and Schwartzwalder never feel that heroic when they DO finally stand up injustices around them. Sure, it’s an important moment when Davis—who has always avoided talking publicly about race—grows some sack and tells a reporter that when he’s on the field he only thinks about football, but “that doesn’t mean he forgets the color of his own skin.” But come on… at a time when Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are taking enormous actions to overthrow the status quo, a flippant comment to a reporter feels a bit soft.
Now, I know what you’re thinking…
This isn’t the story of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. This is a smaller story, the story of a “normal” guy who takes a smaller—but no less important—stand. And historically, you’re absolutely right. Except for one thing…
In a good STORY, actions must feel huge. Enormous. GIGANTIC. This doesn’t mean there can’t be tiny actions—like pouring a glass of tea or glancing wistfully at a stranger—but actions in a story must FEEL huge. They must have massive emotional weight and impact. A storyteller’s job, after all, is to HEIGHTEN action, so the audience feels as if these characters and actions—as they’re playing out—are the most important in the entire world. And this is where The Express falls short.
If it wants to be a “smaller” story, a character study of a potential football legend who made brave choices (and all of us, no matter how “small,” should be making those same brave choices), fine—but it needs to go deeper into the complexities of Davis and his relationships. But it doesn’t do this… Davis never transcends being a righteous hero to become a full-bodied, three-dimensional character with loves, fears, hatreds, inconsistencies and hypocrisies. Neither does Schwartzwalder.
Thus, the movie is stuck in a tepid no-man’s-land… it paints by its numbers well enough to have some effective moments, but it never tackles its material hard enough to be truly powerful or special.
So I guess TODAY’S TAKE-AWAY SCREENWRITING LESSON IS…
Write fearlessly. And I don’t mean that in a cheesy, write-from-the-heart kind of way… I literally mean: if you’re going to write something, write it to extremes. If you’re writing a character who is cruelly racist, make him the cruelest racist ever seen in literature. If you’re writing an action-packed car chase, make it the most thrilling car chase ever witnessed. If you’re writing an angelic virgin, make her the purest character ever met. If you’re writing a grotesque torture scene, make it the most stomach-churning sequence to be put on screen. Do not be afraid offending anyone… do not play it safe… do not be afraid of “going too far.” The human heart, head, and stomach can handle much more than we usually give them credit for… and I think writers and artists often believe they’re pushing boundaries, when—in actuality—the boundary is barely being touched.
So while The Express in no way wants to be an “edgy” movie, I DO think that great storytelling—even in a family-friendly football movie—liv
es in extremes… and, as The Express proves, stories that refuse to go to extremes wind up going almost nowhere. Or at least nowhere very interesting.
Having said all that… there’s almost nothing better than the sound of crashing football pads… especially when that sound is cranked full-blast over an awesome movie theater sound system. Which means if the sound is good enough, almost any football movie will kick a little bit of ass.
THE EXPRESS TRAILER