The Erwin brothers’ faith-based movie “Woodlawn” with Jon Voight and Sean Astin, as of this writing, is currently in movie theatres and has already monetarily surpassed the brothers’ last film and 2015 Dove Award winner, “Mom’s Night Out,” in earnings for its first three weeks.
Many movies claim to be based on true stories, but filmmakers Jon and Andy Erwin got this one straight from the horse’s mouth. Or I should say, straight from their dad, chaplain Hank Erwin. Actor Sean Astin portrays Erwin in this film about the miraculous revival and individual salvation stories that ran through Birmingham, Alabama’s Woodlawn High School football team in 1973-74. The Christian revival among team members, staff, and even an opposing team is largely credited for the record-breaking Legions Field attendance during an unusually friendly Banks vs. Woodlawn football game at the end of the ’74 season. The attendance record has never been broken for a high school football game, and the teams refused to be antagonistic toward each other.
At the center of the story besides Hank Erwin is real-life running back Tony Nathan (played by Caleb Castille), the African American Woodlawn team star who went on to play for the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide. Nathan, who earned the nickname “Touchdown Tony,” then played six years for the Miami Dolphins before turning to coaching. Appearances by Jon Voight as the Tide’s renowned coach Bear Bryant run throughout the film.
“Woodlawn” explores the long-lasting tensions of a racially torn Alabama in the mid-1970s, and the toll it was taking on blacks being able to emerge in school sports. Even though schools had been integrated, large remnants of racial tension still ran throughout the city of Birmingham, the site of the infamous Ku Klux Klan 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 which killed four small girls. In 1974, Alabama had also re-elected as its governor George Wallace, known for promising during an earlier term that he would never allow integration in the state’s school system. But by this time, students were being bussed to schools where they didn’t want to go and blacks were still not well-accepted, especially as athletic players.
As the Erwin Brothers tell it, amid chaotic fights between black and white team members and a coaching staff that wasn’t sure what to do, Hank Erwin approaches Woodlawn coach Tandy Gerelds to see if he could speak to the team. With virtually no connection to the team members, Erwin nevertheless steps forward and tells the players about Jesus, appealing for them to conduct themselves in an honorable way with respect for all people. The reception of this message spreads throughout the team, onto the staff and eventually to their main rival team at Banks High School. Chaplain Erwin becomes an encouraging fixture at their games and in their lives.
“Mainstream media” critics can pan family-friendly films like this all they want. But this film is well-acted and directed, with believable football skirmishes and including real footage from actual games. If it appears “corny” in spots, or like this sudden acceptance of Jesus “couldn’t possibly occur on such a large scale” – well, that’s real life. God works in mysterious ways and chose this team, this chaplain, this star player, these coaches and those days to create unity and calm out of prejudice and pandemonium.
Ranking the film from one to five with five being best, I give this film five footballs. It is worth today’s higher movie prices to patronize films such as this and to walk away feeling like there is hope where Christ is involved.
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