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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Jim Brown: The other star of "The Express"

September 17, 2008 |  3:40 pm

Express_2 Gary Fleder's "The Express," which hits theaters next month, is really two compelling movies in one. It's a great history lesson, offering kids a look at the real-life exploits of Ernie Davis, the trail-blazing Syracuse University running back who in 1961 became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. But it's also a great drama about how both the athletes and coaches of that era were profoundly transformed by the civil rights movement, which initially had a far greater impact on society than on the football field.

It's also a genuine comeback for Fleder, who hasn't made a feature in five years (he's been directing TV pilots), and he finally seems poised to recapture the promise of his early career work on such films as "Things To Do in Denver When You're Dead" and "Kiss the Girls." Before Fleder began work on the film, he knew he had to have one key figure on board -- Jim Brown, who was a star running back at Syracuse in the 1950s, helped recruit Davis (after Brown left to play in the NFL) and later become an action film star and civil rights activist. Fleder didn't simply want Brown's take on Davis; he wanted to hear what the former football star thought of Ben Schwartzwalder, the legendary Syracuse coach who wasn't so enthralled by the civil rights fervor that was starting to sweep the nation.

"I wasn't crazy about the original script," Fleder told me over lunch recently. "I loved the genre and I thought Ernie was an intriguing character, but it didn't have any real conflict." Fleder started doing his own research, reading a lengthy Sports Illustrated article by William Nack that dealt with Davis, Brown and racism in college sports in the '60s. He also watched Spike Lee's documentary, "Jim Brown All-American," which offered more insight into the era. Finally he called Brown, who lives here in L.A., and set up a meeting.

Brown_3"Jim was skeptical," Fleder recalls. "He thought the first script was a little thin. It was superficial and cloying and didn't give enough dimension to the story. But when he started talking about his own experiences, especially his conflicts with Schwartzwalder and how he was told he couldn't date white girls, I started to see a lot more drama there. Jim told me something really amazing that put things in perspective. He said, 'You have to realize, in the civil rights movement, there had to be radicals and peacemakers, radicals like Malcolm X and peacemakers like Martin Luther King. At Syracuse, I was the radical and Ernie was the peacemaker, the guy everyone loved. But you needed both of us to make real changes.' "

Fleder shakes his head. "I have to give Jim Brown a ton of credit. He gave me a way in to tell this story. After talking to him, I knew we had a movie. Chuck Leavitt did a great page-one rewrite of the script. In fact, he didn't even look at the original script. I gave him the transcript of my talk with Jim and based on that, he said, 'I'm in.' Hearing Jim talk about the times was all he needed to convince him."

Two and a half years later, after Fleder had a completed film -- with Rob Brown playing Davis and Dennis Quaid as Schwartzwalder -- Fleder returned to Brown's house with a DVD of the film in his hands. Fleder admits to being something of a nervous wreck. "Jim was very quiet in the early part of the film," Fleder recalls. "Finally, we got the scene where Ernie wants to give his jersey, with No. 44 on it, back to Ben Schwartzwalder, saying 'I'm not Jim Brown.' And Ben says to him, 'God I hope not and God I hope so.' And Jim started laughing out loud, watching that, and I finally relaxed. I remember all I was thinking was, 'Great, he's not gonna kill me.' After it was over, Jim said, 'You got it right.' That was the best compliment a filmmaker could ask for. If Jim Brown was happy, I was happy."

Still, what fascinated me was that first conversation between Fleder and Brown. What did Jim Brown say that made such a difference? What is a filmmaker looking for when he's researching a film based on real-life events? Here are some excerpts from a 2005 conversation between Fleder and Brown that paved the way for the making of "The Express."

Jim Brown: If you deal with the times, you have a pretty gritty story. The greatest part of Ernie Davis was that he could cross over lines. You know, white folks could like him, black folks could like him, without really selling out. Even if you go to Syracuse now, there is a constant battle that goes on. We created a day for minority students coming back together. And that was the first time I ever felt like an alumni. In fact, I never knew what being an alumnus was. I didn't know why people loved their university. I didn't know why people gave them money -- I didn't know any of that. Because in my experience, I just wanted to get out of there and get moving.

Gary Fleder: You came before Ernie. You had an amazing four years, breaking records and you make it easier for Ernie to come to school. I just want to know -- what did you feel on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis? Did you feel the constant pressure or did you acclimate to it?

Jim Brown: I was going to leave because it was almost unbearable. They wanted me to change positions, all kinds of stuff. They basically tried to take all my self-esteem away. And then we played Illinois, and I had to play. I think a couple of guys got hurt and they put me on defense. And then people, the fans, used to always call for me. Then I played Colgate and had a great game and I just sort of broke the back of that whole discriminatory attitude.

Gary Fleder: Did you feel it from the players? The coaches? The school?

Jim Brown: The coaches. Ben Schwartzwalder was a decent guy, but he was from another era. He was like a Marine, with a real army attitude. He thought there was only one way to play football and that was the rough way. Ben was just an old fashioned guy who thought you were privileged to play. And there was always the female situation -- don't date white girls and you have to play better than anybody else. But it was changing. That's the reason I recruited Ernie, because he was a great, great player and it was starting to change.

Gary Fleder: I just want to make a film that has the essence of Ernie Davis. We might have to change and modify things ...

Jim Brown: You can do a hell of a film if you can understand what it is to be a man in America. The sacrifice that it takes, the [bad stuff] that goes on all around and where it comes from. It doesn't break down in color. It doesn't break down in gender. You find it where you find it. So if you take a story like Ernie's, you can show that, for the first time somebody can show what it is to be an American and the subtleties of carrying that burden. You're always having to think of what you're going to say, what you're going to do, where you can go and where you can't. Ernie doesn't scream and he doesn't protest, but he's raging inside. But what do you do when you've got these circumstances? You either throw in the towel or you go ahead and try to make your performance speak for you. You see, if Ernie didn't perform, all that nice [stuff] wouldn't have been about nothing.

Gary Fleder: You faced the exact same thing.

Jim Brown. Damn right. I know it well. You know, the funny thing about cinema is, usually when they do a story that has African Americans in it, there always has to be a white guy who's the savior. But in real life, there are people -- white people -- who have done wonderful things because they were just good human beings. If you look at the Underground Railroad, it wasn't just Harriet Tubman, it was all those white people who risked their lives to help these slaves get up north. The story of Jackie Robinson is also the story of Branch Rickey. He had many reasons for doing what he did, but he stood up against his own people. And if you deal with my life, while I'm dealing with all these bad people at Syracuse, I got all these good people out there helping [me]. So the story is like you said -- it's a big story and a small story. I'm just saying you have an opportunity to take that story and do some things that've never been done. That makes it exciting.

Here's a clip from a recent Bob Costas interview talking with Brown about Ernie Davis:

Photo: (from left to right) Ernie Davis (Ron Brown), Jack Buckley (Omar Benson Miller) and Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) in Universal's "The Express"; Jim Brown in 1965 from AP Photo.