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Monday, January 11, 2016

Woodlawn

Woodlawn sets a new standard for the faith-based film in that its story, acting, directing, cinematography, and music (kudos to my friend, Paul Mills) are up to par with the best of Hollywood films. For that reason, it was garnered great reviews from secular critics who don’t mind giving a positive spin on well-crafted tales that happen to preach the Gospel.

Set in the 1970s deep South with racial tensions and high school football as its backdrop, the canvas for Woodlawn is perfectly drawn for both the Christian and secular audience to revel in the emotions that come from a story where good versus evil and perseverance in the face of opposition reign supreme. The Erwin Brothers (Jon and Andrew) of October Baby fame have truly outdone themselves by delivering an exquisite film that moves, entertains, and beautifully delivers the message of the love of Jesus Christ. All other Christian filmmakers are now on notice that the bar has just been raised!

The time is 1970s Birmingham, Alabama, where Tandy Gerelds (played by Nic Bishop), a hard-driven football coach for Woodlawn High, experiences every coach’s dream of having a future NFL star on his roster. The problem is, the player is African American, and the white majority are vehemently opposed to newly integrated black athletes filling starting positions. Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille) is the player in question, a sweet, Christian boy from a God-fearing family who eventually becomes a hall of fame running back for the Miami Dolphins. But as this story tells, the road to success is not smoothly paved, even when Paul “Bear” Bryant (Jon Voight) shows up at his door with an offer to play at the University of Alabama.

A comment on Nic Bishop—as a southerner with a keen ear for a fake, southern accent, I must confess that he duped me on his flawless twang! I had no idea I was watching a well-known British/Australian actor who many may recognize from his stint on Covert Affairs. His performance is excellent and helps give the film the Hollywood quality that some other Christian films lack. And his slight resemblance to Russell Crowe certainly helps! I predict he is on his way to the A list.

As integration takes hold on the local community, Gerelds finds that the clash of two worlds under the banner of high school football presents some very difficult issues: the spirit of hate fills the halls of the school, fights are an everyday occurrence, and the negative sentiments of the white townsfolk are reflected in veiled threats. But the greatest obstacle is that the white players refuse to play with their African American teammates, a problem for any coach whose career is dependent on a winning season.  

The answer to Gerelds’ problem comes in the person of Hank Erwin (Sean Astin), a self-professed “sports chaplain” with a limp and a cane and a mysterious past that makes him more prophet than preacher. After several failed attempts to speak to the team, Erwin eventually wears Gerelds down and gets his shot. With a humble demeanor, he delivers the message of the Gospel in a resounding cascade of emotional speech that escalates in power, until he takes on the persona of a commander calling his soldiers to the battle line to save their beloved homeland from destruction; morality, peace, tranquility, love, and communal serenity are at risk of being forever annihilated if these young men don’t rise to the occasion and accept a different way of life. Jesus is presented as the alternative to prejudice and hate, and miraculously, the message is accepted by an overwhelming majority of the players. In a humorous moment, Gerelds and his assistant coach are left with their mouths agape, wondering what just happened.

Gerelds soon realizes that a spiritual transformation has taken place, manifested by changed attitudes that have united the team. The phenomena is so palpable that Gerelds finds he doesn’t want to be deprived of what his players have experienced. In another powerful moment, he stands before a congregation of mostly African American believers and professes his faith in God, requesting to be baptized. Like the scene where Erwin delivers the Gospel message, the spiritual elements in this film are presented very well, with no over-the-top dialogue or cringe-worthy acting which could make nonbelievers squirm. All references to Jesus, God, and church throughout the movie appear to be natural to the story and flow nicely with the ebbs and flows of the plotlines.

Castille does a great job of displaying the pressure history has placed on Tony Nathan’s young shoulders. His dream of playing college football for Alabama is fraught with the wounds that all pioneers bear when new trails are being blazed. He is able to manage the taunts from evil whites and the accusations of betrayal from the black community, but when the danger threatens his family, he reconsiders his decision. Bricks thrown through windows bring a fresh douse of fear that only the support from his father, Bear Bryant, and Gerelds can assuage. In a tender locker room scene, Nathan’s frustrations are released in a highly emotional moment where Gerelds comforts him more as father than coach; the love they have for each other goes beyond skin color and straight into the soul. Drawing on this support, as well as his faith, Nathan summons the courage to risk it all and give football everything he has.
The movie eventually builds to the real-life match-up in 1974 between Woodlawn and two time defending state champions, Banks High, referred to as the biggest game in Alabama high school football history. A record 42,000 fans congregated at Birmingham’s Legion Field to see Nathan play against the best quarterback in the state, Jeff Rutledge. The spiritual changes that started with Coach Gerelds and his Woodlawn football team had resonated in the hearts of this Alabama community, so that for one night, people could forget their differences and come together, play football, and cheer their team on to victory without regard to anything other than the rules of the game.

Woodlawn is a great film that has encouraged the faith of so many Christians. Its success at the box-office is proof that today’s movie-going audience needs more films like this!




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