151017woodlawnA Christian football movie – haven’t we already seen that in “Facing the Giants”?

A forcibly integrated high school in the early 1970s whose winning football team leads the way in racial reconciliation – haven’t we already seen that in “Remember the Titans”?

The answers are yes and yes, but there’s one significant detail that makes the new film in theaters, “Woodlawn,” much more than just a “Facing the Titans” or a “Remember the Giants” mashup – it’s all a true story.

The makers of this film are actually the sons of the Woodlawn team chaplain (played by Sean Astin in the film). Star running back Tony Nathan really did come to faith, get inserted into the lineup, get challenged to become a star for Jesus, and go on to lead Alabama to a national title. The revival that started at Woodlawn High really did spread to rival Banks High, whose star QB really did join Nathan at Alabama for a national title. They really did play each other in a rivalry game before 42,000 fans waving Bible verses on bed sheets. And the revival that started at Birmingham’s Woodlawn High really did start with the whole football team coming to Christ and leading a racial reconciliation miracle, the effects of which really are still felt to this day.

The story of the real-life Woodlawn – which the film is remarkably accurate in telling, especially for a movie – is absolutely amazing and inspiring and a shocking testimony to the power of Christ and His gospel.

It’s just too bad the movie doesn’t do a better job of telling it.

“Woodlawn,” to be fair, is representative of the new genre of Christian films, with professional actors, solid production values, and a major step up from the aforementioned “Facing the Giants.” Yet, to be honest, “Woodlawn” still doesn’t hold a candle to the Hollywood-made “Remember the Titans.”

For unfortunately, “Woodlawn” makes the same fatal misstep that plagues Christian filmmaking – it elevates preaching over storytelling, its message over its characters.

The filmmakers seem determined to shoehorn in as many poignant moments as possible, punctuating each one with moving music, a Scripture verse, and a character staring off into space processing what they just heard. It’s beyond just formulaic; it’s emotionally manipulative – and while Christians may celebrate such moments, naively thinking, “Hey! A movie just preached the truth,” more experienced moviegoers will say, “Sheesh. You don’t have to beat me over the head with it.”

“Woodlawn” furthermore spends so much time on these “moments” that it doesn’t spend nearly enough time on the characters, many of whom seem to drift into the tale only to push us to the next “moment,” rather than having a life of their own. That works well for a few cameo characters, such as Jon Voight’s depiction of Alabama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, but it doesn’t work as well when the whole film is populated with such characters.

As the movie nears its climax, it admittedly gets quite a bit better, and the “moments” more legitimately powerful, until it finally makes its key point, “This is what happens when God shows up.” When the audience starts to fully grasp the magnitude of what really happened in Birmingham, and when black runningback Tony Nathan emerges from his shell to become a major character, “Woodlawn” finally starts to sing. Even skeptical audiences who slogged through the heavy-handed first hour will walk out with that feel-good feeling that makes a movie better remembered than experienced at first.

I absolutely commend the message and worldview of this film. Churches, young Christian boys, and older Christians who have grown weary of Hollywood’s culture-corroding influences will be thrilled with “Woodlawn,” which, for all its flaws, is still among the best explicitly Christian films made to date.

I’ll happily let my kids watch and discuss this film, and I’m truly grateful that “Woodlawn” brought to my attention what happened at the real Woodlawn High. The real-life story is incredibly inspiring.

But as an effort to reach the wider culture, I can’t give it a glowing endorsement. The film is just too flawed to be enjoyed outside of that explicitly Christian context. Final score: “Woodlawn” is much more of a field goal than a touchdown.

Content advisory:

  • “Woodlawn,” rated PG, contains neither obscenity nor profanity.
  • Sexuality is limited to two brief kisses and a mother who makes a (laughably) inappropriate comment about whether a girl can actually bear her grandbabies with such skinny hips.
  • There are some references to, as well as a scene of, racially motivated violence, including a brick through a window and burning cross. There are some minor, physical altercations. The action on the football field can also get pretty brutal, especially when a player is targeted for physical harm.
  • The movie contains several references to the Bible and Christianity, all positive and faith-affirming. Multiple sermons, prayers, and gospel presentations are prominent.

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