In three short years at Syracuse, Ernie Davis racked up 2,386 yards, MVP honors, a national championship and became the first African-American Heisman trophy winner. Yet, fast as he was he couldn't outrun history. An early death from leukemia (at 23) largely erased him from memory, an injustice this earnest sports bio aims to correct. There's also the greater injustice of segregation to attack, a task that Davis handled as nimbly as he did a football, but which the movie slogs through as though it were a rain-soaked field.
Rob Brown (Finding Forrester) gets the start as Davis, a humble, hard-working kid asked to fill the cleats and No. 44 jersey of his idol Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson). Davis succeeds beyond all expectations. An especially weathered-looking Dennis Quaid plays head coach Ben Schwartzwalder, an old-school hardass, not entirely comfortable with his reluctant role as a civil rights pioneer. Despite the attendant headaches, coach stands by his black players, because he can't ignore their talent or their basic decency.
For Davis, the better he plays, the more intense the pressure from the bigotry that soils all levels of campus society. He clashes first with a white teammate — played by Geoff Stults, who must've attended the Ben Affleck School of sneering superiority — but the real trouble begins when the team plays hostile stadiums in West Virginia and Texas, where fans are racist jarheads. Davis gets pelted, but he pulls himself up off the turf, strengthens his resolve and becomes a cheer-worthy example.
Direction is solid, but Gary Fleder seizes upon every cliché in the sports-flick playbook, used countless times in such films as Remember the Titans and Glory Road. We get brief scenes of romance at a school dance, bone-crunching on-field action and plenty of on-the-road team bonding, all set to a standard-issue, period R&B soundtrack, topped with requisite Ray Charles numbers.
It's certainly an important and valuable story, but Fleder treats each scene with such reverence that it loses shape. It's all so dignified and proper; you wish someone would tackle the story of the more incendiary Jim Brown. As it is, actor Rob Brown is often burdened by appearing saintly, playing Davis like some football Buddha, a guy so noble and mythologized his skin practically glows sometimes like polished bronze. But Brown has the quiet grace to pull it off, turning in a focused, near-perfect performance. If only the screenplay offered him more chances to be human.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].