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Integration And Faith Take The Field At Woodlawn

Updated on November 1, 2015

In 1973 Birmingham. Alabama, residents still struggled with the mandated integration of their schools. One of the stories has become the focus of the movie Woodlawn. That year, balcks and whites attended Woodlawn High School together for the first time. The school year starts with racial tension, and the school superintendent demands change for the better - or change at the top. That affects assistant principal Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop), who also serves as a science teacher and as its head football coach. When Woodlawn was all white, his Woodlawn Colonels did not fare well on the field. More of the same is expected, but the Colonels have a promising halfback in new student Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille), who also plays defensive back and kick and punt returner. The Colonels lose a close one in their opener, but even their mark as Nathan starts to show his skill.

Meanwhile, local resident Hank Erwin (Sean Astin), who runs a local branch of the Fellowship For Christian Athletes, approaches Coach Gerelds with a request to speak to the team. The coach declines, but Hank persists. Finally, Gerelds lets Hank speak, but does not attend this meeting, leaving assistant coach Jerry Stearns (Kevin Sizemore) to supervise. A meeting meant to last five minutes runs over an hour, and leaves Tandy, who's come to check on his assistant, wondering how Jerry let that happen. Jerry watches as Hank convinces most of the players to dedicate their game to a higher power. When Tony becomes less tentative about taking on tacklers, he becomes a starter, and the victories come, including one over a state ranked team. Coach Gerelds, seeing what has happened, asks Tony's minister to baptize him. Their run leads to a showdown for a playoff spot with their rival, Banks High, who has a star of their own in quarterback Jeff Rutledge (Richard Kohnke). Banks wins, but Coach Gerelds keads the way among those promoting their Christian faith on the field. That creates a new problem for the superintendent when one of Gerelds's former players sues the school district, claiming Woodlawn's religious slant cost him a football scholarship. Tony, though, gets a visit at home from Alabama Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant (Jon Voight), offering Nathan a chance to play on a Crimson Tide team with Rutledge.

Faith-based films are not a priority for me to see - and they never will be. I merely had a free Sunday and a chance to see a matinee of a film that has received some positive notice. Woodlawn, which is inspired by actual events at the school, works when it focuses on the football. The success at Woodlawn is a often-told fee-good tale of a team coming together and achieving success. Tony especially thrives in an atmosphere where his coaches help him make the most of his speed and combine that with their insight. The success brings confidence to the Colonels, and helps Coach Gerelds and his squad build a unity as a team. Their winning ways and their unification methods even help to change attitudes at their school. Woodlawn has more personality than the 2014 football film When The Game Stands Tall, which also shows some faith-based elements for a team dealing with the price of unprecedented success. Woodlawn, however, does not have the appeal of the 2000 film Remember The Titans, which shows how a school works to find a way to integrate a team in more ways than one.

The elements of faith, however, don't work nearly as well. The film, for one thing, doesn't show how the bat-wielding Hank, who lives with a limp following a construction accident, keeps the team's attention for such a long time, though he does show he can bang a bat quite loudly against some bleacher seats. It also bothers me that men like Hank seem to be saying with their faith initiatives that their faith is better than everyone else's. His inspirational speech to the team when the Colonels aren't expected to win involves the very familiar tale of David and Goliath. Another troubling aspect of the religious portion of the film comes from the mouth of Tony's mother, Louise (Sherri Shepherd), who proclaims that she will not approve of her son becoming involved with a girl who doesn't attend Sunday services. While it may be obvious that the ex-player's contentions are frivolous, courts have ruled that that separation of church and state in public institutions must be enforced. People can - and should be reminded - that they can publicly show their faith in other ways, including silent prayer and action consistent with their faith. The small moments of race-based hatred are just as stereotypical as the religious ones. Woodlawn comes from the directing team of brothers Andrew and Jon Irwin (sons of Hank), whose films are Christian-themed. Jon Irwin gets help with the wildly uneven screenplay from veteran TV writer Quinton Peeples, whose previous theatrical writing came with the 1997 film Joyride, which starred Tobey Maguire.

The best performances in the movie come from from the actors whose characters live their faith rather than preach it. Woodlawn marks the screen debut of Castille as the quietly determined Tony. He finds his place on the gridiron with mostly new teammates, and he finds a woman he likes in Johnnie (Joy Brunson), even though she's not the religious teen Tony's parents would like her to be. Johnnie, though, comes from a tough background, with acquaintances who don't much care for Tony. He addresses that issue with a quiet resolve. Bishop, who looks and sounds like a light-haired Kyle Chandler, adopts his team's example not only as their coach, but also as a school leader. Coach Gerelds feels the need to connect with his team, and make their new situations acceptable. I also like Voight as the famed Coach Bear Bryant, who had his own ways of addressing the Crimson Tide's integration that didn't include being vocal or confrontational. Astin gives a well-meaning, but overbearing, performance as Hank, while C. Thomas Howell hams it up in his role as George "Shorty" White, a rival coach who admires the Woodlawn approach to team unity.

Some football fans will recognize the names of Nathan and Rutledge, and know that both men eventually played in the NFL. Before they played the pro game, they became known on the prep gridiron. Woodlawn shows how one school overcame their differences to build a program that exceeded expectations. I'm content with using their religious beliefs as a part of team unification, but I share the sentiment Jimmy Fallon regarding the overall mix of religion and football. During the height of the phenomenon known as Tebowing, Fallon recorded a parody on Tebowing sung to the tune of David Bowie's Space Oddity. Jesus responds to Tim Tebow to leave him alone due to more pressing matters. The story of Woodlawn football's success is fine, but the religious message, especially at the end when a 2016 convention and a website get mentioned, cuts into the movie's overall effectiveness.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Woodlawn 2.5 stars. Remember the Colonels.


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