If Christian cinema doesn’t conjure up a film that shows its ostensible love for being persecuted, its hackneyed display of sentimentality and “realism” through road trips and facile relationships, or its love for praying everywhere from schools to small closets, it’ll focus on a sport, particularly football. Woodlawn, directed by the brothers Erwin, Andrew and John, who also made Moms’ Night Out and October Bay, is the kind of film that is victim to feeling like a never-ending bout of cliches no matter how accurately it’s told. This is a film that can’t find a way to tell its extraordinary story without adding generous portions of filmmaking dramatizations and perfunctory sports movie occurrences, all while actively limiting the character development and trying to make you feel like you’re watching a film more exceptional than it really is.
The film concerns Woodlawn High School, the first high school in Birmingham, Alabama to integrate races in 1973, causing a wave of backlash and unrest between students. As the city remains divided, we focus on Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop), the football coach of the Woodlawn Colonels, as he tries to ease racial tensions between his now integrated team. He enlists the help of Hank (Sean Astin), a Christian motivational speaker that tries to reason with the players by preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, talking about how hope and forgiveness are the fundamental ideas of the human experience.
The team happens to score an African-American player named Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille), who turns out to be one of the most impressive and unstoppable running backs in high school football. Through Nathan’s unprecedented maneuvers and the team’s newfound love for the lord, the team winds up excelling tremendously at the game. But that’s not the important part, as we so tiresomely learn from the Erwin brothers’ constant moralizing, for it’s the fact that a group of men put aside the color of their skin to achieve the commonality of being brothers in Christ that makes their story so amazing.
The first questionable element of Woodlawn comes in the way of some seriously questionable foreshadowing when Hank makes his first speech to the crowd of players, most of whom clearly agitated and restless. After an hour-long speech, most of them realize their pursuit of the promised land is what they have in common. While they get up to congregate when Hank finishes speaking, we are left focusing on a group of three men (actor Brando Eaton being one of them) sitting back in disinterest and rebellion at what is occurring. Never once do we see those three men again and what we’re supposed to make of that shot is entirely left unsaid.
With that, perhaps people are so blinded by the race issue the film concerns that they are unable to see the cliches readily apparent or the fact that these titans are largely unmemorable, overall. The game between the Woodlawn Colonels and the Banks Jets has gone down in history as the biggest high school football game in Alabama history, attracting over 40,000 people and simultaneously inciting one of the largest incidents of the proclaimed “Jesus Revolution.” It was a hugely significant event many people will never forget. However, the film at hand turns the people that made it possible into precisely the thing we shouldn’t see them as and that is their race; all we see are a plethora of agitated white men and determined black men that want to be accepted. It’s criminal to shortchange people into that those narrow descriptions.
Even Tony Nathan, our main character, has so little of a personality it’s almost hard to root for him. Coach Gerelds is nothing more than the archetypal “do the right thing” kind of coach that prefers an unrealistic moralism to his practices than his colleagues, most notably the win-at-all-costs coach of the Banks Jets (played by C. Thomas Howell of all people). Finally, the remainder of the team is just a collection of hormonal young men caught up in the heat of the game, so much so that there’s hardly any time for anything resembling character interest to take over.
Despite all the acclaim Woodlawn is getting for being a faith-based film that apparently takes a step in the right direction, I fail to see nothing more than almost all the problems of the genre exhibited through another dime-store film. Still present in Woodlawn is an abundance of sermonizing, mainly from Astin’s equally bland Hank, in a way that spells out all the emotions you should feel at a given time, in addition to your average sports film devices, such as each game seeming like the biggest in the world, filled with quick-cuts and tiresome cheers and jeers.
Woodlawn is what you’ve come to expect from the genre of films that brought us the lackluster Faith of Our Fathers and the terrible and almost contradictory War Room earlier this year. This is a film that focuses on a nostalgic event during a difficult time in American history and features one of the most beloved sports of the respective culture, so I understand how it’s hard not to get wrapped up in teary-eyed, patriotic, spiritual emotions when watching this film. All I ask is for one to remember films of the sports genre that are acclaimed and highly regarded and ask themselves why they are so beloved; the answers vary, but one of them is that they don’t use their setting as their primary feature nor do they define characters solely by their position on the field and their race. For a film attempting to be so inclusive and diverse, it’s terribly narrow-minded.