A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Woodlawn is a faith-based drama inspired by true events at a Birmingham, Alabama, high school in 1973. The movie focuses on how a sports chaplain helped convert nearly the entire Woodlawn High School football team to born-again Christianity after it was desegregated, helping the players deal with racial strife on and off the field. Part football drama, part evangelical success story, Woodlawn does have serious themes and moments, but they're generally not as heavy as similar scenes in Selma or other secular films about the era. There's no use of the "N" word (as would have been commonplace at the time), but white men do say "colored," "boy," and "Negro" several times, and scenes of violence against African Americans include a brick thrown at a house, footage of bombings and burnings, and fist fights resulting in a student being taken to the hospital. Viewers who aren't Christians or who don't go to church should know that there are clear messages that believing in Jesus is the one right way to live a meaningful life.
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What's the story?
In 1973, newly desegregated Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama, had its first black football players -- like Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille), a gifted running back. Viewers are introduced to Tony, Coach Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop), and Hank Erwin (Sean Astin), a sports chaplain affiliated with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes who wants to work with the team to inspire them to "come to Jesus." Hank shows up and asks Coach Gerelds for time to speak to the team; Gerelds gives him five minutes, and when he returns to the gym an hour later, Hank is still there and has miraculously converted nearly the entire team to evangelical Christianity. Newly rededicated to their faith, the team transforms into a true brotherhood, putting their friendships -- and their football -- above racial differences. Inspired by his team, Gerelds also professes his faith, and the team, still guided by Hank, works together to play for the glory of God.
Is it any good?
Although this isn't a Selma-like retelling of civil rights history, for what it is -- a "by Christians, for Christians" sports drama set in racially charged 1973 Birmingham -- it's executed well. Unlike some faith-based films that have a shoestring budget and seem to employ only a couple of trained actors, WOODLAWN has high production values and a professional cast of talented actors. From Austin and Bishop (an Aussie best known for his primetime TV work on Dominion, Covert Affairs, and Body of Proof) to newcomer Castille and Jon Voight as legendary University of Alabama coach Bear Bryant, there's no shortage of talent in the cast.
As a labor of love for directors/brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin, whose father is the sports chaplain Astin portrays, Woodlawn mixes exciting football sequences with a rather idealized depiction of the team (only one player and his dad refuse to get on board with the conversion and the integration). The directors stay away from edgier aspects of the time's racial divide, although they include a scary scene in which a brick nearly misses Tony's little brother, as well as a brawl outside the high school. One of the most evocative scenes is when Tony refuses to shake the hand of (and take a publicity photo with) Governor George Wallace, who opposed integration. But again, Woodlawn is less about civil rights and more about the height of the Jesus Movement of the early '70s -- and how one team, black and white, played football for their Lord.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about whether faith-based movies appeal to viewers who don't share that faith. Who do you think is the intended audience? Can others enjoy them?
How does Woodlawn portray the racism and segregation of the era it takes place in? Do you consider this a civil rights film or a sports film?
How are sports and faith related in this movie? Do you think public school coaches and teams should allow or encourage religious activity on a sports team the way Woodlawn did?
How accurate do you think the move is to the actual events that inspired it? Why might filmmakers decide to make changes to real events?
Some critics have said the movie focuses too much on the experiences of the white coach/chaplain and too little on the African-American players. Do you agree?
- In theaters: October 16, 2015
- On DVD or streaming: January 19, 2016
- Cast: Sean Astin, Nic Bishop, Caleb Castille
- Directors: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin
- Studio: Pure Flix Entertainment
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Sports and Martial Arts
- Run time: 123 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: thematic elements including some racial tension/violence
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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