Sometimes you need to look back to understand where you are.
The new film Woodlawn, opening October 16 in over 1,500 theaters, appears to be another "based on a true story" football film reminiscent of others like Remember the Titans. However, it does not take long to discover that this story is about more than high school football in the age of bussing.
Woodlawn is a film by the Erwin Brothers (Mom's Night Out, October Baby) based on the true story of "Touchdown Tony" Nathan, a high school football star in the early 1970s at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama. The film opens with images, some from old newscasts, others made just for the film, that highlight the intensity of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. News footage from the late 1960s and early 1970s showing Birmingham churches burning and bombed out, Alabama Governor Wallace's famed speech about never allowing desegregation at the University of Alabama and interviews of those living in a city being called "Bombingham" sets the stage for the depravity and division in our nation from just a few decades ago. Some would say we have come far as a nation. Others, referencing recent acts in Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston would say that perhaps we have not progressed as much as previously thought.
The stage is set for the story of Tony Nathan.
The version of the film my wife, Tracy and I saw with other leaders in our city is a pre-edited, or more accurately, a mid-edited version. There are scenes where dialogue will be added, and special effects will replace visible green screens and empty stands during football games.
I imagine some other scene trimming will take place to get the film under the two-hour mark.
Nevertheless, this is a very watchable and engaging film. This is a film that is worthy of an incredible opening weekend. The acting is excellent, beginning with Oscar-winner Jon Voight as Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.
Sean Astin plays a pivotal character in the film. Astin is Hank Erwin, the Woodlaw High School team chaplain, who also happens to be the father of Andrew and Jon Erwin - the "Erwin Brothers" who brought the film to life.
Of course as soon as Astin appears on the screen in a period-piece football movie, I wanted to yell "Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!" but my wife wisely discouraged that.
Lesser known actor, but wonderful in this breakout role, is Caleb Castille. He plays Tony Nathan, but didn't get the role until three days prior to shooting. It's clear the Erwins casted the right man. Castille not only carries his scenes with class and skill, even those shared with more seasoned actors like Voight and Astin, but he is a football player - not just an actor pretending to be one.
Castille was a walk-on at the University of Alabama where both of his brothers (Tim and Simeon) and his father (Jeremiah) played football. His father and brothers all played in the NFL as well. After three years of playing and winning two national championships at Alabama, he decided to walk away from football and pursue acting. He was given the go-ahead by his parents as long as he remained in school.
Originally cast as the understudy and body-double for football scenes for the actor originally scheduled to play Nathan, it became clear prior to shooting that Castille was the guy and he received the role.
Other well-known actors and entertainers appear. C. Thomas Howell steals scenes as the Banks High School coach, Shorty White. Nathan's parents, played by Sherri Shepherd (who offers perhaps the funniest line in the film when she meets Tony's potential new girlfriend) and Lance Nichols are superb.
Also - this is set in the 1970s, so the sideburns on just about all male characters are great. This film may usher in a new retro-facial hair style to replace the ever-popular goatee.
The football scenes in this film are as engaging as any I have seen in movies.
Sports movies, in my opinion, have often done a poor job of conveying the action on the field or court well. In some cases, the interaction between players, fans and referees is so unreal that any athlete (or former athlete) just cringes when watching the film (remember Teen Wolf?) In more recent years, it seems that directors and writers work to ensure the games on film are more realistic, recognizing that many in their potential audiences will notice flaws.
Woodlawn does a wonderful job at leading the audience to believe actual football games are being played out on screen. Castille and the other actors make this convincing. Of course, there was one moment during the film when my wife leans over and asks "Does anyone other than Nathan ever get the ball for Woodlawn?" I laughed and then, almost like the writers heard us, the next scene showed another Woodlawn Colonel running the ball.
Making a period-piece sports movie, especially a football one, as an independent filmmaker must be tough. There will be numerous fixes in post-production. Legion Field in Birmingham is old, but the modern Dr. Pepper and Mountain Dew advertisements on the scoreboard need to be replaced. This is not a big deal. . .but, I noticed it. Unless these soft drinks have paid for product placement, they will likely be replaced. When actual footage of the Woodlawn and Banks (the rivalry school) game is shown, I was reminded how different football helmets and uniforms looked in the 1970s. The shoulder pads were larger, the face masks and the logos on the helmets were different. This is not a knock on the film. I understand the creative license and the Woodlawn helmet used in the film looks much better than the one in archive footage. These make for cleaner, clearer images in color.
It's a Great Film, But Now What?
Faith-based, or "Christian" films are trendy now. The quality is much better and getting the church out of the church-house and into the local cinema has been effective. Most Christians understand the value of opening weekend and many churches, mine included, look to help quality independent films like this one do well when it counts.
However, this time, I sense something different must be done. There was a Q&A time with those in the audience seeking info on creative and new ways to get the right people in the cinemas to see it. In other words, the discussion was focused not on how to get the church into the theater, but to get others into the theater to see the film and then into local churches.
This isn't a "grow your church" campaign disguised as a movie. This is a real effort to see what the next chapter in God's great awakenings will look like and in an age where entertainment and sports reign as the gods of our nation, the question remains "What can we do?"
I heard a number of people share ideas - though, to be honest, they weren't really ideas. One pastor said, "To make a long story short. . ." and I knew what that meant. He would share anything but a "short" story.
Others echoed ideas that sounded like they had been birthed in the 1970s.
I wondered if anyone in the room heard the host say "Let's pray and share some creative and out-of-the-box ideas regarding the message of this film."
Alas, the church often fails when it comes to creativity, much to the dismay of people like the Erwin brothers, who obviously live on the edge of creative arts.
Here's What We Will Do
I shared my idea and still believe that this is our best, first-step. Our church is located in a suburb of Jacksonville, FL. Jacksonville and our area have a long history of racial divide. Things are better than in the past, but I don't hear anyone saying that we have arrived and are where we desire to be. Every day on the news there is another story of a shooting. Sometimes it's gang related. Sometimes "black on black" crime." Other times, it's "white on white" and since we're diverse, there are still multi-racial crimes being committed. Our sin is equal opportunity.
There are some amazing God-sized stories happening in our community as well. These are powerful and God is birthing new churches and revitalizing legacy churches. More multi-racial work is being done by churches that in prior generations would not have happened.
It seems that we are on the precipice of something big.
The church is ready, but by and large. . .we're still holed up in our buildings.
I believe what we saw acted out in this film is more than just a story about what happened years ago, but a reminder that God does not sleep, is the same yesterday, today and forever.
What if high school students in a city grabbed hold of the message of the Gospel? What if the Gospel grabbed ahold of these students? Our church will seek to purchase all tickets for a showing or two on opening weekend. This will likely be on Saturday evening, since high school football is king each Friday evening. The tickets will not be for church members but for members of our local high school football teams. Maybe even putting two schools in the same theater . . . rivals, even? Our teams are not segregated (at least not intentionally) as they were in the 1970s, but what is the same is the reality that the vast majority of our students do not know Jesus Christ. They are spiritually void and need to know there is a God who says "It doesn't have to be this way."
Will the players attend?
Many schools and coaches are more afraid than ever of being sued for the breach of the "church/state" issues. Here's what I know. If students decide to go to the movie, it is legal and there is no issue for the school. If the coaches attend, it is legal. This is a public theater and so far, other than guidelines regarding age and ratings, people can attend the movies of their choice.
What would happen if by viewing a true story of spiritual renewal through a high school football team, God decided to do it again?
What if He decided to do it in my neighborhood, in my community, in my schools. . .or in yours?
I'm still dreaming about how to get kids to see the film, but more than that, I'm dreaming about another great awakening.
Will God Do It Again?
Yes. The question is "Will we miss it or be a part of it?"