By Debbie Holloway
Release Date: October 16, 2015
Run Time: 123 minutes
Directors: Andrew Erwin, Josh Erwin
Cast: Nic Bishop, Sean Astin, Caleb Castille, Sherri Shepherd, Jon Voigt, C. Thomas Howell
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."
~Martin Luther King Jr.
For a "sports movie" there are quite a number of non-sports topics in Woodlawn, the latest effort from Andrew & Josh Erwin (October Baby, Moms' Night Out) and producers Roma Downey & Mark Burnett (The Bible, Son of God). Southern politics. Desegregation and racial tension. The Jesus Movement of the '60s and '70s. Domestic violence. The separation of church and state. And that's on top of everything happening on the field and in the locker room.
The Erwin brothers, originally from Birmingham themselves, present us with a tale inspired by true events that led to the legendary 1974 Woodlawn vs. Banks game. It gives us a peek into the teenaged versions of NFL stars Tony Nathan and Jeff Rutledge. It paints a raw, ugly picture of Birmingham race relations, and the fight to save Woodlawn High from closing due to failed integration. It gives us a glimpse of what the Jesus Revolution looked like, and the role it played for the Woodlawn Colonels in the early 1970s. And while the sheer number of issues addressed can feel overwhelming at times, there is much to appreciate in this Remember The Titans-esque look at a high school football team struggling to work together.
After the film begins with the above quote from Martin Luther King, the voice of Woodlawn coach Tandy Geralds (Nic Bishop) explains that prior to 1973, he didn't believe in miracles. But all of that was about to change.
There's rioting in the streets of Birmingham. Schools are finally being forced to integrate black and white students. It becomes quickly clear that this southern town has a comfortable history of white supremacy. Even the black children seem completely resigned to living as second-class citizens. Until, that is, young Tony Nathan becomes the star of the high school football team and starts making people believe that maybe there could be a black superstar in Alabama.
The success of the team (and the school itself) over the next few years is largely due to the arrival of the mysterious Hank (Sean Astin, The Lord of the Rings trilogy). Hank is a self-proclaimed "sports chaplain" who preaches the gospel to the football team one night after school and causes a bit of an uproar when almost every single team member spontaneously converts. Over the course of that season, Hank instills in the team the idea that if they want to end the bitterness between white and black players, and to start playing effectively, they must learn to put their self-interest aside and play only for the glory of the Lord.
The film has some important things to say to a country that, even forty years later, still struggles with deeply rooted racism and injustice. Even so, many elements of Woodlawn left this reviewer unsure and unsettled. The chief uneasiness lies in the character of Hank. Hank is certainly a motivational speaker, and Astin gives a solid performance, yet something about the character feels a little disturbing.
Hank's only real function seems to be delivering messages from God. This is what God is giving. This is what he is taking away. This is why. He explains to one player that maybe they failed to win their opening game because God is "testing" them to see "that our commitment is real, and not just to win football games." He tells another, "I think God wants you to be a superstar." After reading a passage from the David and Goliath story in the Bible just before a big game, he predicts to the team, "You're going to win this game tonight!" so that everyone in the stands will know "that there is a God in Israel."
As inspiring as those speeches are... is that really how God works?
Even as the team learns to give glory to God throughout the film, there aren't many concrete acts of selflessness, generosity, or other spiritual fruit shown between boys as a result of their conversion. Being all-in-for-Jesus, according to Woodlawn, mostly involves praying in various public places.
As inspiring as our faith is... shouldn't it look like more than attending church, praying before football games, and pointing to heaven after a touchdown?
Perhaps it's just a bit jarring to look back at the style of 1970s evangelism from a 2015 vantage point. And undoubtedly many Christians will be edified and comforted by Hank's speeches. Still, in many ways the portrayal of faith in Woodlawn lacks realistic nuance and subtlety. The simplistic rhetoric tying God's favor to winning and losing is useless and confusing for those who have lost loved ones, or whose lives are in shambles after a job loss or broken criminal justice system.
Near the end of the film, Hank gives an impassioned speech detailing the miraculous triumphs of their community, repeating over and over the phrase:
"This is what happens when God shows up."
It doesn't take a theologian to take a step back from the admittedly quotable phrase and ask, "Wait, was God not around before?"
Did the Jesus Movement really open some mysterious door to let God back in from wherever he had been hiding? Do we truly believe that we kick God out of schools by rules and regulations, and bring him back with public praying and candle-lighting?
The question that movies like Woodlawn and the recent God's Not Dead seek to answer is, "Will we glorify God with our actions?" But a better question for today's Christian might be, "How will we glorify God?" With a pep rally? With a lawsuit? With a mass text? With saying the Lord's Prayer in front of thousands of people?
How about with joy? With kindness? Goodness? Faithfulness? Gentleness? Self-control?
On the whole, Woodlawn sends a beautiful message of bravery to any young person struggling to find his identity. Caleb Castille shines as Tony Nathan, and Nathan's relationship with coach Geralds is probably the most poignant and heartwarming element of the film. Fans of football will undoubtedly appreciate the scenes involving high-stakes gameplay, particularly Nathan's uncanny prowess on the field. This is also a movie the whole family can watch, from the young to the old.
But the challenge will be to merge the film's simplistic proclamation of faith with the complicated nuances of our own less-cinematic reality. Are we merely pointing to God, or truly exposing God's love to those who don’t know him?
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Drugs/Alcohol: None
- Language/Profanity: Some racially charged name calling (e.g. "cracker") and threats.
- Sex/Nudity: None
- Violent/Frightening/Intense: Racially motivated violence, including riots (nothing bloody or graphic), destruction of property, a burning cross, etc.
- Religion/Worldview: The film's events are put into motion by an evangelist who starts a revival of sorts in a public school, which opens up something of a legal can of worms. Several characters are outspoken in declaring their faith publicly. Several scenes involve praying, baptism, conversion, etc.
Publication date: October 14, 2015