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Family Movie Review: Woodlawn (PG)

Woodlawn ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewKernel Rating (out of 5): whole popcorn kernalwhole popcorn kernalhalf popcorn kernal

MPAA Rating: PG        Length: 124 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 13+. The film focuses on a segregated Alabama town and how high school football and Christian faith brought the white and black communities together; there is some historical news footage of riots and civil disturbance, some football-related violence, some kissing, some derogatory language (like the use of the words “cracker” and “Negro”) and racist behavior (burning crosses in yards), and some implied adult drunkenness and implied child abuse.

‘Woodlawn’ is yet another faith-based film about high school football, and this one ultimately isn’t that different from the rest. Even for those who believe in its message, the film tries to accomplish too much with too little.

By Roxana Hadadi

Faith-based films are their own genre, and within it, the high school football movie reigns. In the past year alone, there have been so many of these films – like “When the Game Stands Tall” and “23 Blast” – that “Woodlawn” seems like yet another off the conveyor belt. That’s not exactly fair, because “Woodlawn” has a solid cast and moments of powerful morality, but for the most part “Woodlawn” is just more of the same old thing.

The film, based on true events, is set at Alabama’s Woodlawn High School in September 1973. The school has been forced into segregation by the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling of the Supreme Court, even though Alabama Governor George Wallace famously claimed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” People aren’t happy about it – white people are protesting on the streets, and black students are forced to line up behind a locked barrier before their teachers can let them into school – and the negativity and tension are palpable to football coach Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop).

Now in charge of a diverse team, Coach Gerelds isn’t exactly sure how to pump them up: “None of us chose this, it was forced on us, but we can choose together what to do with it,” he tells them, but his words of encouragement are ignored by white players, who call their black teammates “boy” and bully them, and also ignored by the black players, who show interest in the Black Panthers-style attitude of some of their classmates. How to bring the team together? And, more importantly, how to get them to win?

Enter sports chaplain Hank Erwin (Sean Astin, of “Do You Believe?”), who has been inspired by the recent national resurgence of mainstream Christianity to visit Woodlawn High School and offer his guidance. Although Coach Gerelds isn’t a believer, he lets Hank speak to his students – and is then shocked by the results of Hank’s motivational message encouraging them “to change, to forgive, to be forgiven.” Black and white kids are studying the Bible together. Black and white kids are getting along better on his team. And of all those kids, it’s Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille) who impresses both Coach Gerelds and Hank the most.

A black kid with wicked athleticism who is a natural at the tailback position, Tony is excellent for the team, but he knows the odds are stacked against him: “There’s no such thing as a black superstar, not in this state,” he tells Hank. But his play might be the key to holding the team together, and if the team can motivate the school, can the school motivate the community, and then the state, and then the national civil rights movement at large? Possibly.

Well, at least that’s how “Woodlawn” portrays its significance: with the claim that the city was the most segregated in the country and that the racism there would have been insurmountable without the role of Christianity. Perhaps that’s partially true, but “Woodlawn” tries to prove that point in so many ways that it undermines itself, muddying up the message.

The coach’s atheism-then-faith is one subplot, then Hank’s own dreams of playing professional sports are another, then Tony’s relationship with his girlfriend and the abuse she suffers from her father is another, then the public school system’s dissatisfaction with Hank’s mixing of church and state is another, and there are at least three or four more subplots plopped throughout the film. Too much time is spent on these various narratives and too little on the main one; we hear about kids coming together to study the Bible, to unite the community, to find commonalities and friendship, but that’s barely shown. There is far more talk of how faith is changing these students than actual scenes of that happening, and because their growth is rushed and mostly unseen, you won’t be invested in what they’re experiencing. 

But “Woodlawn” has some scenes of great emotional power, and they help give the film heft: Tony refusing to take a picture with Wallace at a football awards banquet because of the governor’s proud, vocal racism, or when one coach acknowledges to a black player that it’s “brave” of him to be playing football at such a high level and in such a fraught climate. Like so many members of the faith-based genre, “Woodlawn” goes overboard in trying to ascribe every single positive thing that happens to Christianity, but those scenes are the film’s greatest, most memorable successes.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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