A month from now is the release date of Woodlawn, a narrative drama that tells the true story of African-American football great Tony Nathan and the spiritual revival that awakens his newly desegregated Woodlawn High School football team in 1970s Birmingham, Alabama.
“It was during a time where people weren’t getting along very well, but as a football team, we came together,” Nathan said in an interview with The Finsiders. “They accepted me, I accepted them. Some did, some didn’t, but you know, that’s life itself.” Regarding the Woodlawn movie, Nathan said, “actually, it was very emotional for me to see it … to go back and say, ‘Well gosh, that did happen. I actually went through that.””
Well-casted and beautifully shot, the Erwin Brothers’ latest film is a delivery to the canon of American sports biopics. Woodlawn’s coach tries to reform the team in his own strength, and learns that the real solution is supernatural. Changing structure is collective and merely external, not what changes individual souls. Football levels the playing field in the story of racial tension, and like in The Blind Side, the competitive sport is context for the larger story of hearts being softened.
The multiple plot lines become a bit tangled out of the starting gate, but you can’t help pulling for all of them to the finish with such endearing characters at the reins. Sean Astin, who memorably starred in the football classic Rudy, makes a very believable Hank Erwin — the father of co-directors Andrew and Jon Erwin — who leads the team to Christ as an indomitable, self-initiating chaplain. Caleb Castille makes a compelling debut performance as Nathan, the young athlete whose talent makes him a desirable player but whose skin color makes his prominent role risky. Nathan’s family is an inspiring influence throughout, including a strong performance by newcomer Joy Brunson as Johnnie, Nathan’s high school sweetheart and future wife.
The story climaxes in the historic Woodlawn vs. Banks game which drew a crowd of 42,000 to Birmingham’s Legion Field, known as the football capital of the South. Alabama might as well add “The Football State” to its list of nicknames. Roll Tide royalty and their War Eagle brethren both factor into the Woodlawn picture. Nathan’s deliberations as to where he is called to use his running back gift lead to charming encounters with University of Alabama’s legendary Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who is reverently portrayed by Academy Award-winning actor Jon Voight.
Castille, who is from an outstanding Alabama football family and played for the Alabama Crimson Tide himself before deciding to pursue acting, went from stuntman to leading man in a series of events following stunt coordinator Mark Ellis’ selection of him as a body double to the actor who eventually had to drop the role of Nathan.
“Choreographed football is 22 guys and a very violent dance,” Ellis says in a behind the scenes video. Ellis has worked on sports and action films including Jerry Maguire, We Are Marshall, and The Dark Knight Rises, and his quality work shines in Woodlawn. A little more silence from music here and there might have allowed us to better savor Paul Mills’ beautiful soundtrack, but sports movies get away with a little melodrama. Jon and Andrew Erwin’s eye for capturing football on screen may be credited to their experience as camera operators for ESPN.
Australian actor Nic Bishop, appearing with a virtually flawless Southern accent, presents a poignant rendition of Woodlawn Coach Tandy Gerelds, the hardened cynic who is humbled by the revival stirring the souls of his players when he realizes, “I want what my players have.” The revival spreads beyond Woodlawn, as can be seen in rival Coach George “Shorty” White (C. Thomas Howell) of Banks High School.
But Woodlawn does not demote God to the role of fairy godmother and make redemption an effortless, superficial spell. Conversion is instant, but growth involves struggle, especially when the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. As in reality, the persons in Woodlawn are still the same created persons before and after revival, and even following spiritual encounter they deal with fallen nature.
“The Good Book says without a vision, the people perish,” Nathan’s father tells him. “So go out there and give it to them.” Nathan discovers that on the football field, he can speak to a nation without saying a word.
Woodlawn may serve to show us that there are some things movies and sports can do for the heart and mind that legislation and rulings cannot. It is a relevant film worth watching, and re-watching.
Woodlawn will premiere in theaters nationwide on October 16th.
Two related books released this month are Woodlawn: One Hope. One Dream. One Way. by Coach Gerelds’ son Todd Gerelds (who is tenderly portrayed in the film by Jet Jurgensmeyer) and Tony Nathan’s autobiography Touchdown Tony: Running with a Purpose.