"Based on a true story" is perhaps the most dangerous phrase in the entertainment biz. It promises truth, if not meticulous historical accuracy, and leaves the impression with the viewer that what he just saw actually happened. Once artistic licenses are taken, however, what ends up in the final product rarely gets it "right."
Take The Express, a new film which opens this weekend. It's the story of Ernie Davis, a running back from Syracuse University who became the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy, in 1961. It's a good story, complete with a tragic Hollywood ending (Davis died of Leukemia at 23), that deserves to be told.
So why did the filmmakers decide that the telling would be enhanced by making up an episode that slanders my alma mater?
A review in the show business publication 'Variety' says the movie's 'most electrifying sequences portray Schwartzwalder's unbeaten 1959 Syracuse U. team playing West Virginia and Texas -- not exactly two bastions of racial tolerance -- with a level of racist vitriol pouring out of the stands that is a topical reminder of America's racial heart of darkness.'Several problems abound. First, WVU and Syracuse didn't play in Morgantown in 1959. Second, when the teams played in Morgantown the next season, nobody involved, from either team, remembers a "racial heart of darkness":
Dick Easterly, 69, of Tampa, Fla. was the Syracuse quarterback that day, when Davis rushed 14 times for 125 yards before a sparse crowd of 20,000.There are more, but that gives you the idea.
Easterly saw 'The Express' at a critics' preview last week in Tampa.
'I apologize to the people West Virginia because that did not happen,' Easterly said. 'I don't blame people in West Virginia for being disturbed. The scene is completely fictitious.'
Now in his 62nd year of writing about WVU football, Mickey Furfari was in the press box, covering the game for the Morgantown Dominion-News.
'It's stupid,' Furfari said of the scene. 'It's pure fiction. The moviemakers should be absolutely ashamed.
What makes it even worse is that Syracuse's coach at the time, Ben Schwartzwalder, who refused to give into racist pressure not to let Davis play, was a West Virginia native! In fact, the trophy that Syracuse and WVU fight over every year bears his name (the rivalry renews this weekend, FWIW).
I'm not trying to argue that West Virginia in 1959 (or 1960) didn't have racial problems. Hell, we've still got them today. But it doesn't do anybody any good just to make shit up based on stereotypes. If the students and fans that were around in 1960 treated Davis with the respect due any opposing player, how is it fair to them to paint with such a broad brush.
"Based on a true story" - bringing you fiction for gods know how long.