Wednesday, September 24: Movie Night With Jason Taylor (and a Short Review of The Express)

Usually, when someone in a movie theater full of high school kids says “Turn your cell phone ringers off,” it’s viewed by the audience as at best a polite suggestion, and at worst as some sort of ridiculous joke. But no cell phones interrupted last night’s advance screening of The Express: The Ernie Davis Story. Maybe it’s because the guy issuing the instruction was six and a half feet tall and 244 pounds, or maybe it’s just because he was Jason Taylor.

Taylor isn’t taking on a side job as he recovers from his recent surgery; the screening was part of the Jason Taylor Foundation’s “Big Screens-Big Dreams” program. The program is another that Taylor has had success with in Florida — he shows films designed to “inspire and motivate” young people and speaks to the group before and after the film.

Joining Taylor at the screening was the star of the film, Rob Brown, who had flown back from Los Angeles just to accommodate Taylor’s request — and this despite being an avowed fan of the New York Giants.

The movie tells the story of Ernie Davis, the Syracuse University running back who became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. Davis had been on the verge of becoming one of those unjustly forgotten heroes of American sports, and the film was made largely to prevent that from happening.

“I played college football,” said Brown, introducing the film to the crowd (almost all of whom were high school football players), “and I was surprised that I didn’t know about Ernie, seeing that a lot of his work led to me being successful as a black man on a college campus. I’m just happy the film is [coming] out now so people will know his story, much like people know Jackie Robinson’s story even though most people in the room, myself included, aren’t old enough to remember him.”

Taylor concurred. “For Ernie Davis to come in and overcome the things he had to overcome, it really set the stage for us nowadays – for me as a professional athlete and for you as high school athletes. And not just in athletics, but in life.”

There are SPOILERS for The Express — or at least the life of Ernie Davis — after the jump. If you’re excited for the movie and want to go in knowing nothing about Davis, you might want to quit now. You’ve been warned.

And on that level, the move is definitely a success. It retells Davis’s story effectively, and uses the conventions of the sports movie well. Dennis Quaid is effective (and looks like the guy from Heroes) as crotchety-but-ultimately-honorable coach Ben Schwartzwalder, the game footage is suitably exciting, and the cultural unrest of the times is brought to vivid life.

In a USA Today article from July previewing the movie, some of Davis’s contemporaries were concerned about how Brown would portray him onscreen.

The film could make Davis identifiable to younger generations. Yet, some close to him worry it won’t capture his essence. They say the classy way Davis carried himself exceeded his brawn. He was approachable, whether he gained one yard or 100.

“Ernie was not only a gentleman,” [Davis teammate] John Brown says, “he was a gentle man. I hope they portray him as an articulate gentleman who could run like hell with a football.”

From that perspective, Brown nails it. His Davis is a classy guy with charisma to burn, and he’s believable throughout the film (even in scenes that, according to a recent Kansas City Star interview with Davis’s then-girlfriend Helen Gray, wouldn’t have actually happened).

The movie isn’t perfect by any stretch. The dialogue clunks in places, and there are scenes of symbolism that tend toward the heavy-handed. Certain elements of the cultural environment — like the infamous and embarrassing anti-integration stance of then-Redskins owner George Preston Marshall — are insufficiently explained.

(In fact, the film changes a fairly important detail with regards to Marshall: after a U.S. government ultimatum to sign a black player, your Washington Redskins were poised to draft Davis with the first pick in the draft; Davis refused to play for Marshall and was traded to Cleveland, bringing Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell to Washington. In the movie, Marshall trades Davis for racial reasons. It’s a baffling change, especially in light of Davis’s growing racial awareness through the film.)

But on the whole, it’s a movie that accomplishes its goals.

The film is structured roughly like The Natural — young man grows up, becomes a star, meets his idols, becomes a big leaguer, and so on. But there’s a tragedy to Davis’s story that disrupts that Hollywood narrative: Davis died at the age of 23 of leukemia, never playing a down of professional football. It’s tragic, and Sports Illustrated’s obituary from the week of his death captures the shock of that tragedy well.

For me, going into the film knowing the rough outlines of Davis’s life and death, the inevitability of the ending made each triumph on the field, each game sequence, ring bittersweet, as the dates of the games marked off the time Davis had remaining. For the audience last night, though, that didn’t seem to be a problem — which I suppose is kind of the point.

There was audible surprise when Davis falls ill, and again when the text onscreen explains his ultimate fate (a fate the movie wisely avoids showing), and the end credits were met with applause. All of which says to me that the film reached its main goal.

“When you take that field on Friday night, or whenever your next game is,” Taylor told the crowd after the screening, “I think we all need to realize that a lot of people that came before us laid the groundwork. I know that nowadays a lot of guys play to get to the NFL and guys want to get the money and the fame and all that, but you need to think back to not too long ago when there were guys like Ernie Davis and Jim Brown who sacrificed everything to set the stage for what we have nowadays.”


5 Responses

  1. I think the greatest signing we could have was that of JT. He is a role model that any parent would like to show-off in his house.
    Just when you think that sports today are full of the prima donnas who are in for the money and the glory, you come across a person like JT. Everyone, listen up; you cannot do better than have this person as the ideal of CARING!!!
    Miami, your loss is our gain and not just on the football field.

  2. Hey I was there… My question to Jason was Did he miss the dolphins… He paused looked around and said nope… WHAT A JERK

  3. i am dearly apologetic for the inappropriate comment i preveously posted. i did not mean what i said, and i realize the seriousness of what was said. jason taylor is a great man, and the organization which he runs is a great cause and everybody, including myself, appreciates everything he has done. i wish the best for him, the team, and the foundation, and did not mean to make this all happen. once again, i apologize.

  4. I am so proud of JT I know Washington fans appreciate his efforts. Thanks to all of you.

  5. A little trivia about Ernie Davis. The Washington Redskins made him the first pick in the 1962 draft, then traded him to the Cleveland Browns for running back Bobby Mitchell.

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