directed by Gary Fleder
written by Charles Leavitt
based on the book by Robert Gallagher
starring Rob Brown, Dennis Quaid, Charles S. Dutton, Darrin Dewitt Henson, Omar Benson Miller, Nelsan Ellis, Nicole Beharie, Aunjanue Ellis,
Based on the true story of Ernie Davis, this film tells his story against a backdrop of institutionalized racism throughout post war America.
Ernie is first seen escaping the taunts and threats of a gang of racist white youth where he discovers he’s a gifted runner. Later he moves from his grandfather Willie’s (Dutton) house in Uniontown, PA with his mother to Elmira, New York. There he discovers a pee-wee football program and signs up. He’s confronted with basic racism of a rudimentary kind but proves to excel on the field. The film fast-forwards several years where Ernie is in high school. Coach Schwartzwalder of Syracuse University sees tape of him performing and heads out to New York with Syracuse standout and legend Jim Brown (the most able back the previous season who was nevertheless denied the Heisman trophy. Jim Brown convinces Ernie to sign up with Syracuse.
The rest of the film follows Syracuse as they march toward a national championship. Ernie is the key player and there are various bumps along the road that lead to confrontations. Racism is clearly apparent in many instances where various people voice their antipathy to the emergence of an African-American player. It is a strong sentiment throughout the film although it never threatens to consume it. Ernie just plays football without speaking out to the chagrin of his uncle Will (Nelsan Ellis) who takes him to an NAACP meeting and wants him to set an example for black liberation and determination. He speaks on the field by presenting himself as an example to all the youth who naturally idolize him for his prowess on the field.
There is only a hint of political activism in this film as it mostly wants to focus its attention on the exploits of its central character and use the tumultuous times to make occasional comments on the difficulties that a black collegiate athlete of Ernie’s stature would face. It’s mainly a film about a singularly gifted player that also deals with the pettiness of an underlying racism that still informed many white people and influenced how they dealt with blacks. The jabs are subtle but Ernie Davis feels them all with a sharpness that nevertheless does not affect his ability to shine on the field. There is a real sense of community amongst the African-American population who treat Ernie with adoration. One gets the firm impression that his success is taken as an emblem for all African-Americans and an example of what they might accomplish in their own lives. This is a film of empowerment and relates a type of consciousness that transcended the football field and reached into all arenas of public life. Ernie is a symbol of high expectations in which he is forced to carry the weight of an entire people on his shoulders.
Dr. Martin Luther King is presented in a speech that stands in for the confounded black position during the time. Ernie Davis seems unaffected by Dr. King and rather spends his time either playing or courting his girlfriend Sarah (Beharie). This is not a film about political awakening or black power. It’s merely a simple story about a great athlete who carried on a tradition started by the impossibly talented Jim Brown.
Ernie does occasionally fight back but its not necessarily clear if his racial pride is hurt or if he is merely reacting to hostilities in a direct, physical manner. He is aware of how others see him and doesn’t pretend that he isn’t aware of the racism all around him. He knows that there are many people who would love to see him fail in order to prove their own theories about the inferiority of the black race. Even referees are not immune to the contagion and there are moments where Ernie is cheated specifically because of his race. At one game the fans throw bottles and other debris at the field in a collective demonstration of their animus toward Ernie and the entire team.
The film is hackneyed at times and the story is predictable and certainly not novel but it does manage to consistently entertain and Rob Brown makes a good stand in for the football hero. There is a bit of a letdown late in the film where the film shifts gears from an exegesis on American brand racism into a strictly personal account of the life of Ernie Davis. Everything build up to a specific end and once that is accomplished it just sort of fizzles out. Still, it’s engrossing straight through to the end and there are many moments when one firmly believes in the vitality and talent of this singular individual. Racism or no this is a film that explores the notion of greatness and what it means to those who participate in it and those who live through it vicariously.
There is decent sports photography in this film but nothing that hasn’t been seen in countless other sports films. There are also several moments that are seen in all these film including the hard headed coach, the hazing of the phenom, and the significant sports moments that are slowed down so that they begin to resemble Gatorade commercials. Still, the film is presented in a straightforward way and the characters are likable while the tensions surrounding them are clearly demonstrated.
The performances in this film are all quite enjoyable. Rob Brown captures all the physicality and fine posture of capable football star. Ernie is smooth, gallant, and freakishly good at what he does. Brown gives us the heroic figure who does great things that resonate with the community and beyond. Charles S. Dutton has a brief role as the elder statesman of the Davis Family. Just in the way he moves about there is indication that this is a character of substance that is revealed in his strong faith. Dennis Quaid gives a riveting performance as the coach who is battling his own racist tendencies. Quaid is intense throughout and one truly gets the impression that his character is a man driven by the desire to win. Quaid personalizes this desire with a straightforward performance that owes a lot to the gritty, no-nonsense coaches that have made the gridiron their home. Nelsan Ellis has a coolness about him that is present in every scene he’s in. Ellis is adroit at playing off other actors with a deft touch and skill.
Overall, this is a bit more than the typical sports hero story. It wins primarily due to its performances and its concentration on the consummate personality of its star. It doesn’t work as well as a historical piece mainly because it doesn’t have the scope to tackle the issues at play. Still, it doesn’t try too terribly hard to be something that it is not and mostly comes across as a commendable entry into this tightly packed field. It is the story of a gifted man who discovers an outlet for his singular talent and that’s all it really needs to be. Racism certainly plays a part in the tale but it doesn’t overwhelm the core narrative of goodness, dedication, and honor.