Ernie Davis may be the greatest running back never to play in the NFL. He was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, in 1961, and though the color of his skin didn’t break new ground (Jackie Robinson had already suited up for the Dodgers, and Jim Brown preceded him at Syracuse), this bio-pic offers a stark reflection on our not-so-proud past. Gary Fleder, who’s known mostly for pre-fab work (Kiss the Girls and Runaway Jury), and his screenwriter, Charles Leavitt (working from Robert Gallagher’s book The Elmira Express), choose to recount the bittersweet rise to stardom not so much in the big moments (winning the 1959 national championship) as by focusing on Davis’s personal trials and triumphs before he became a household name and those he experienced later, after he was diagnosed with leukemia. It’s a smart call, showing Davis vulnerable as a stuttering youth in the face of bullies and then as a young man challenged by a childhood friend turned radical to use his blossoming star power for the greater African-American political cause.
The Pride of the Yankees and Brian’s Song were poignant depictions of promise, courage, and greatness cut short, and the actors threw their souls into their characterizations. The same holds true here. Rob Brown (Finding Forrester) portrays Davis as torn by optimism and anger. (A scene in which Davis and his black teammates are not allowed to attend the national-championship banquet in Dallas does more in that brief moment to bring to light past racial inequities than the whole of Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna.) And Dennis Quaid’s portrayal of ’Cuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder, a decent man sometimes forced to choose between virtue and victory, personifies the conflicted American conscience of the era. 129 minutes | Boston Common + Fenway + Fresh Pond + Chestnut Hill + Suburbs