Review

WOODLAWN – Football, Faith, & Film

I am a sucker for great sports movies! Anybody that’s been around me for a while knows that many times I explain the point I’m trying to make through sports analogies. I just have a real passion for the dedication, the mindset, the strategy, and the intricacies of great athletes and great teams. Oh yeah,  there is the  conflict, drama and human struggle.

When it comes to football, there is an amazing legacy of fantastic movies in recent history: Rudy, Remember the Titans, The Blind Side. There’s just something about a great story about an underdog who is able to achieve, and overcome, on the gridiron.  Even if you don’t like football, or sports, these movies seem to transcend to all audiences because they are great PEOPLE stories.

Woodlawn has tried to tap into this vein and create a legacy of its own. And, there are a number of factors with this movie that point toward it being able to accomplish just that.

  • The filmmakers are telling a story that is something they are both deeply passionate about, and connected to.
  • It takes place in a deeply complicated time in our nations history.
  • It happens deep in SEC football territory.  
  • It involves a great athlete.
  • It involves a legendary coach.
  • An historic game provides the setting for the penultimate moment in the movie.

In the end, the movie does a decent job of tackling it’s own potential.

The story opens in 1973 when Tandy Gerelds (NIC BISHOP) is the football coach at Woodlawn High School in a racial powder keg of a city, Birmingham, Alabama. They have a struggling team and they are also contending with bigger issues as Woodlawn becomes integrated.  Black students are bused to the school, much to the chagrin of racist parents, students and even some players on the team. 

In the end, the movie does a decent job of tackling it’s own potential.

Initially taking some of the brunt of that is junior Tony Nathan (CALEB CASTILLE) who’s suddenly thrust into the star spotlight when he proves his abilities on the field through his speed and elusiveness. 

Then, in steps Fellowship of Christian Athletes Hank Erwin (SEAN ASTIN), a self described sports chaplain, who offers to help.  Although Hank thoroughly irritates Coach Gerelds, who isn’t a believer, he’s allowed to speak to the team and promptly brings nearly every player to Christ. When the coach sees how Christianity unifies his team, he becomes a believer himself, and his team starts an unlikely winning streak. That draws the attention of legendary University of Alabama head coach Bear Bryant (JON VOIGHT) who wants to recruit Tony to attend his school and play on his team.

As Tony’s junior and then senior years progress, he must make a choice about that, all while Christianity continues to unify the community.

 

Even while in the shadow of Remember the Titans, (a hugely successful story about integration, the civil rights era, and football) you can’t fault Directors Jon and Andrew Erwin for wanting to tell this story that makes for a bio pic about their own father played by Astin.

Woodlawn is moving, if a little fantastical at times, as it weaves Jesus, Bible studies, Church, and message together with football and the 70’s in the South.

There are some really shining moments in regard to the production of this movie. Many of the scenes are shot and lit in really magnificent fashion. In fact, I would go so far as to say, from a technical standpoint, Woodlawn is one of the best faith based film crafting endeavors to date.

Woodlawn is one of the best faith based film crafting endeavors to date.

Also causing this movie to stand apart from the rest of the field in its genre are really terrific performances by Bishop, Astin, Voigt, Castille, and the rest of the cast.  

When War Room came out this past summer, I wrote that in effect, the Kendrick Brothers have helped establish a new genre: Sermon on Film.  And, while Sermons on Film may not be, from a craft standpoint, standout and award worthy by industry standards that hasn’t kept the audiences away. The last box office numbers available put War Room over the $60 million mark.

Woodlawn also fits in this genre.  But, it has set the bar much higher for this kind of  fare.  The Erwin’s, who have previously made October Baby, and Mom’s Night Out, are clearly making better and better movies with each release. Many of the scenes in Woodlawn look far superior to the budget that the film was made within.  Even the scenes that present direct Christian message are far better than the same type of scenes in other faith-based films.

 

There are, however, some factors that keep Woodlawn from being the movie it could’ve been.

  • Things happen too easy.  People come to the Lord very easily. (Yes, I know that actually happens.) One moment of domestic violence is resolved quickly. Issues involving racial hatred and conflict seem to get handled with swift ease. A pivotal moment with bigot & then Alabama Governor George Wallace is portrayed with appropriate tension and then seemingly has no consequence. This leads me to yet another point.

 

  • There is a missed opportunity to have faith play a deep role in impacting racial prejudice & integration. Although clearly, historically, Jesus did have a huge impact on the men and situation in Birmingham, what happened is shown rather  than letting the audience experience what happened as it occurs.  Instead of witnessing  the changed lives that Jesus produces changing an untenable situation the subject is dealt with in very superficial fashion.

 

  • Woodlawn is overly ambitious when it comes to weaving together multiple story points.  Football, integration, Bear Bryant and Tony’s decision about going to Alabama, Tony’s romantic relationship, what happens to Coach Bishop, and the violence in Birmingham. All of these storylines come to a head in act three. The result is somewhat unsatisfying if at least well intended.

 

What the Erwin brothers have crafted in Woodlawn is definitely to be applauded.  One can only hope as faith based movies continue to resonate with the body that the skills and abilities of the craftsman continue to reach new heights as the brothers have done here.

I look forward to your thoughts and comments below!

CCM Founder & Executive Producer

Doug Rittenhouse

1 comment

  1. Karyn 19 October, 2015 at 12:02 Reply

    wow!!!!
    Seriously, the preacher was the father of the Erwin Brothers??? I did not realize that in ALL the media I have read about this movie – but that is SOOooo cool!!!!
    I loved this movie and I agree with nearly every point you made here Doug!

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