I attended a pre-release showing of Woodlawn last night. I liked it, even though I wasn’t expecting to — I have been disappointed over and over by the mediocre attempts of evangelical filmmakers. But this felt different. What I call “the cheese factor” was missing. That’s the term I use to describe amateurish, poorly written and acted efforts at making the gospel relevant through cinema. Cheesy Christian films, perhaps unintentionally, rely on the patience and charity of church-goers whose love of the message makes them willing to accept mediocrity and suspend disbelief. The same films tend to be soundly mocked by viewers from outside the evangelical camp.
I think Woodlawn succeeds where many have failed because it is based on a true story. When evangelicals attempt to make up a story — cinematic fiction — the “cheese factor” seems unavoidable, but this film, like The Hiding Place (1975), is based on a true story. Woodlawn is drawn from the book by the same title which, according to the Amazon summary, is about “courage, strength, and football at the height of racial tension in Birmingham, Alabama…and tells the story of Coach Tandy Gerelds, his running back Tony Nathan, and a high school football game that healed a city.”
The story takes place in the early 1970s against the backdrop of two significant cultural phenomena, the civil rights movement and what was called “the Jesus revolution.” Some movie-goers unfamiliar with the time may find themselves doubting the film, writing off some of the events as examples of the aforementioned “cheese.” But having lived in that period (Jody and I devoted our lives to Jesus in 1972) I can vouch for the amazing “God stuff” that happened then. Large numbers of young people really did decide to follow Jesus in radical, rebellious ways during those years. Not a few found themselves drawn to the cause of racial equality that was birthed in many black churches.
I could almost feel the tension of the Erwin Brothers (who produced and wrote Woodlawn) as they attempted to balance the story of spiritual revival that was a catalyst for reconciliation in Birmingham with the struggle of the civil rights movement. No small task. Two under-developed sub-plots in the story may have been casualties of the challenge. Still, to delve much deeper into the issues behind racial unrest would have made the film longer than was practical (the running time of Woodlawn is about two hours). Becoming too thorough with the complexities of racism in the South could easily have caused the film to lose focus. You can only do so much. Moreover, other recently released films have placed issues of racial injustice and sports in the spotlight and have done an admirable job — Remember the Titans and 42 – the Jackie Robinson Story come to mind.
Bottom line: I wasn’t embarrassed by this movie. You ought to make plans to see Woodlawn when it comes out in October. I recommend it.
Official movie site: http://woodlawnmovie.com