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"WOODLAWN"
(2015) (Caleb Castille, Nic Bishop) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: An African-American high school student of the early 1970s must contend with racism as he becomes a star football player, all while the team, coaches and community become united through Christianity.
PLOT:
It's 1973 and Tandy Gerelds (NIC BISHOP) is the football coach at Woodlawn High School in the racially charged city of Birmingham, Alabama. Tandy and his assistant coach, Jerry Stearns (KEVIN SIZEMORE), have long operated in the shadow of Coach Shorty White (C. THOMAS HOWELL) and his rival football team at Banks High School, led by star quarterback Jeff Rutledge (RICHARD KOHNKE). But now they must contend with other issues when Woodlawn becomes integrated as black students are bused to the school, much to the chagrin of racist parents, students and even some players on the team.

Initially taking some of the brunt of that is junior Tony Nathan (CALEB CASTILLE) who's suddenly thrust into the star spotlight when he proves his prowess on the field through his speed and elusiveness. His parents, Louise (SHERRI SHEPHERD) and Junior (LANCE NICHOLS), are thrilled, and Tony ends up drawing the romantic attention of fellow student, Johnnie (JOY BRUNSON), but Board of Education official Gene Whitehurst (BRETT RICE) isn't pleased about the rising racial tensions.

In steps Christian religious crusader Hank Erwin (SEAN ASTIN) who offers to help, much to the chagrin of Coach Gerelds who isn't a religious man. But when he sees how Christianity unifies his team, he becomes a believer, and his team starts an unlikely winning streak. That draws the attention of legendary University of Alabama head coach Bear Bryant (JON VOIGHT) who wants to recruit Tony to attend his school and play on his team. As Tony's junior and then senior years progress, he must make a choice about that, all while Christianity continues to unify the community and even the players and coach at Banks High School.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
It's always amazed me that people can take sound religious teachings and pervert them to support whatever agenda they might have, usually at the expense and often the harm of others. One need only look at religion based genocide, slavery and related racism, wars and the thousands of years of unrest in the Middle East for prime examples of that.

Thus, it's always nice to see religion used to help solve societal ills created by such abusers, and that's a great deal of the theme that fuels the Christian drama "Woodlawn." Based on a true story, the pic is the latest effort from sibling filmmakers Andrew Irwin & Jon Irwin who previously helmed the related genre pics "October Baby" and "Mom's Night Out," and this is easily their most polished and professional work yet.

For those not familiar with the real events that form the storyline of this film, the two-time defending Alabama high school football state champion Banks Jets played their Birmingham rivals, the Woodlawn Colonels, on Nov. 8, 1974.

It remains the most watched high school football game in Alabama, mainly because of the hype surrounding a white star quarterback on one team and an African-American star running back on the other. And anyone slightly familiar with history knows that state and particularly the city of Birmingham was still licking its wounds from the violence and unrest following the Civil Rights movement a decade earlier, and that steadfast segregationist Governor George Wallace was still in office at that time.

Working from a script that Jon co-wrote with Quinton Peeples, the film starts with voice over narration from Coach Gerelds (Nic Bishop) stating that back then he never believed in miracles. That's followed by a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. about only light being able to drive out darkness and only love being able to drive out hate, and then quick examples of racial oppression in the city.

The main story then kicks in as we see junior Tony Nathan (newcomer Caleb Castille, solid in the part) jogging to his new high school where, like other African-American students, he's been reassigned to segregate the formerly all-white school. That obviously doesn't sit well with racist protestors, classmates and even fellow players on the football team.

The coach promises that winning solves everything, but a traveling Christian crusader, Hank Erwin (Sean Astin who played the title character in the football flick "Rudy" more than two decades ago), arrives with the promise that God and particularly Jesus will help save the day, not only for the team and its win-loss record, but also the community. The doubtful coach is at first a skeptic, but all but three players join Hank and soon things start to turn around, particularly for Tony who becomes a star on the field and draws the attention of a pretty classmate (Joy Brunson). The coach eventually sees the religious light, as does his rival coach (C. Thomas Howell), and even legendary 'Bama coach Bear Bryant (Jon Voight) shows up, liking what's heard about and seen in the young man on and off the field.

The film's message is good and for the most part the flick works decently. That said, and like many others of its ilk, it's still fairly heavy-handed in terms of its evangelicalism (ranging from the all-too obvious use of the old "Spirit in the Sky" song which I believe I heard at least twice, to a Christian hotline number on the screen at the end, and info on at least two such rallies in 2016).

Much of the sports drama storyline is pretty much by the usual genre playbook, and the use of "Sweet Home Alabama" could raise some eyebrows considering its alleged racial lyrics and undertones in a film about solving racism (although I don't think those are actually heard in the film). It's also unlikely the newfound religion so quickly and effortlessly soothed so much (but not all) of the longstanding, savage beast of racism that ravaged that particular part of America in that era, or that the religious skeptics (such as the two rival coaches) so quickly became believers.

Yet, despite that, enough of the flick worked for me to give it a slight recommendation. The football scenes are handled well, the acting is, for the most part, solid, and there are some decent, and heartfelt emotional moments. I have no idea how much of the film is factually accurate, but "Woodlawn" scores enough times to earn a 5.5 out of 10 rating.




Reviewed October 14, 2015 / Posted October 16, 2015


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