July 29, 2009 -- When I first heard of this movie, I'd never heard of Ernie Davis. If you haven't, then that would be a good reason to see this film. In some ways, Ernie Davis was for college football what Jackie Robinson was for major league baseball. He wasn't the first black college football player, or the first black pro player, either, but he was the first to receive the coveted Heisman Trophy, naming him the best college player in the nation. He died of lukemia before getting a chance to play professional football, but this movie isn't about his death. It is about his life.
Davis, played by Rob Brown of “Stop Loss,” is shown as a hard-working man dedicated to making himself the best football player he could be, blessed with great speed and power. He is compared favorably to perhaps the greatest running back in the history of the game, Jim Brown (played in this film by Darrin Dewitt Henson of “Stomp the Yard”). Brown helped recruit Davis to Syracuse University, telling him that coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid of “Vantage Point”) would make him a better player. The coach is not entirely thrilled to have Davis, afraid that he'll be another troublemaker like Jim Brown, who was a social activist in addition to being a great player. Davis, while not the social activist that Brown was, still caused his coach his fair share of headaches, according to the movie. Schwartzwalder and Davis clash over racism and how to respond to it in the film. Schwartzwalder doesn't want to rock the boat, afraid of violence in the south. Davis wants to push the limits of what is acceptable in a segregated society. Here, the film seems to be pushing a characterization of Davis that was more confrontational than he was in real life, according an article in the Houston Chronicle that quotes Davis' friend and teammate, John Brown: “When the Chronicle asked Brown 'whether the film is a truthful portrayal of his friend (Davis), Brown said... in short, 'no.'"
The film plays the race card pretty hard, especially in a scene in which Syracuse plays West Virginia and the home crowd is both racist and very hostile, to the point where Schwartzwalder doesn't want Davis scoring touchdowns that might incite violence. The actual game was not played in West Virginia, however, it was played in New York. One would assume Syracuse fans would have no objections to Davis scoring touchdowns, since he did so on a regular basis. While the film does play fast and loose with some facts, the overall story is true. Davis did lead Syracuse to its first national championship in his first year playing for the team, and later did win the Heisman trophy and later was selected number one in the NFL draft (he was also drafted by the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League).
One gets the feeling from this film that Davis was so talented, he would have succeeded no matter what. That makes him a bit less inspirational. The film does succeed in making both Davis and Schwartzwalder interesting characters. The film is well-acted and the football scenes are well-staged. The film even gets into some X and O strategy stuff with Schwartzwalder's implementation of an unbalanced line to create one-on-one running opportunities for Davis. The movie also has its heart in the right place and it is as earnest as it can be. It simply falls short of being a great movie. There is none of that lump in the throat feeling one gets from a football movie like “Rudy.” It just never seems like Davis has to try that hard. Maybe the film is working the race card so hard it loses sight of the fact that Davis was a fully rounded human being who would be much better defined by more than just his athletic skill and the color of his skin. This film rates a B.
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