Friday, October 10, 2008

Ernie Davis' Triumph Over Racism Needs No Embellishment

Ernie Davis' death from cancer at the age of 23 is first and foremost a human tragedy; looking beyond the loss that his family and friends suffered, NFL fans will always wonder what he might have accomplished had he lived long enough to play for the Cleveland Browns. Davis led Syracuse to a national championship in 1959 and two years later he became the first black athlete to win the Heisman Trophy, a remarkable cultural shift just five years after his Syracuse predecessor--Jim Brown--was snubbed for that honor due to the color of his skin; in protest of that travesty, Dick Schaap resigned as a Heisman Trophy voter.

"The Express"--which opened in theaters today--tells Davis' life story. We all know that any Hollywood movie that is not expressly labeled as a documentary--and even some movies that are called documentaries--will take some poetic/dramatic license, because real life is just deemed to be too boring. Jeff Merron, who writes for Page 2 at, compared Davis' real life to the "reel life" that is depicted in "The Express." In general, "The Express" is an accurate portrayal of Davis' life and times but the movie's depiction of when Davis' Syracuse team played West Virginia appears to be distorted in several ways. "Express" forcefully contends that the referees and the hostile crowd would not tolerate Davis scoring a touchdown but, as Merron notes, the reality is that the only time Davis faced West Virginia--in 1960--he gained 125 yards on 14 carries and scored two touchdowns. "The Express" portrays the West Virginia fans as boisterously hostile and racist but there is no evidence that the foul behavior depicted in the movie actually happened during that game. In fact, Dick Easterly--Syracuse's quarterback at that time--recently refuted the movie's account of those events: "I apologize to the people of West Virginia because that did not happen. The scene is completely fictitious."

This kind of historical revisionism is a lot different than making some minor alterations to a script to heighten drama. Davis and other black athletes in that era faced plenty of real life racism, so it is doubly wrong to smear the reputations of people who did not mistreat him: such a lie not only harms innocent people but it lets the real racists off scot-free. There is no need to make up hateful things that did not happen and it would be infinitely better to forcefully portray the people who really were racists--and call them (and/or their schools) out by name. "Express" did exactly that in its accurate account of the despicable treatment that Davis received in the 1960 Cotton Bowl and in several other games--but adding something to the mix that did not happen weakens the film instead of strengthening it.

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