It’s been a long, uphill battle for Christian filmmakers.
Their films, no matter how religious the movie’s message might be, will get labeled with the politically correct “faith-based” genre tag, an almost instantaneous death knell to the financial profitability of the project.
Sure there have been some exceptions to the rule – “Passion of the Christ” and to a lesser extent “God’s Not Dead” and “Heaven Is For Real” – but on the whole, these “faith-based” films won’t ever receive the development or marketing budgets that a major blockbuster would, limiting the potential for commercial success.
Sports films have traveled that same road, albeit with greater success, but much of that can be attributed to more swings of the bat. For every “Rudy” there’s four or five “Million Dollar Arm”-esque flops.
Unwittingly, viewers’ expectations for films in faith-based and sports genres are lower than a similar quality film in another genre. No matter how much some viewers might try to deny them, these stigmas exist, floating around in the back of our minds as we watch films in these genres.
For faith-based films, the recent success of “War Room” – which significantly outperformed critical and commercial projections – may have marked a turning point in the genre.
The new release “Woodlawn” doubles down on religious and sports movie stigmas, pairing football and faith in a based-on-a-true-story feature from the Erwin Brothers, makers of “Moms’ Night Out.” Odds favored the film being a flop based on historical evidence.
But like the story it tells, “Woodlawn” overcomes the stereotypes. In spite of an independent-level budget, the Erwin Brothers offer viewers not only the highest quality “faith-based” film in recent memory, but one of the best sports movies not about boxing this decade.
The film follows Woodlawn High School – a predominantly white and recently integrated school in Birmingham, Alabama during the early 1970s – as its football team converts to Christianity and spreads a message of love and mutual respect on the football field and in the community to help heal one of the country’s most racially divided metropolitan areas.
It’s no coincidence that the Erwin brothers turned to Sean Astin, beloved by moviegoers as the relentless underdog Rudy Ruettiger in the iconic sports film “Rudy,” to play an evangelist who spreads God’s love to the Woodlawn team and helps both black and white players succeed on and off the football field.
In a cast of relative unknowns, it’s Astin’s steady hand and familiar face – along with an assist to the legendary Jon Voight as equally legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant – that grounds the movie and helps maintain viewers’ interest in scenes where poor screenwriting and inexperienced acting cause “Woodlawn” to become a little shaky. Cable television actor Nic Bishop gives a solid performance as Woodlawn’s assistant principal and head football coach Gerelds as well.
The film’s breakout star, Caleb Castille, plays African American tailback Tony Nathan, a superstar in the making if he can ever get off the bench and onto the field. Castille, a former defensive back for the University of Alabama, portrays Nathan with a humble innocence and grace one would expect to see from a lead character in a “faith-based” film, though his performance has much more authenticity.
“Woodlawn” certainly made the most out of its production budget with one of the sharpest, most well thought out cinematic efforts in the faith-based genre. The film is clearly meant for the big screen, especially in its grandiose football sequences.
The film’s soundtrack is firmly engrained in the 1970s and rivals major studio efforts, led by The Doobie Brothers’ rendition of “Jesus is Just Alright,” “Spirit in the Sky” from Norman Greenbaum, Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and, of course, “Sweet Home Alabama” from Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The script, penned by Quinton Peeples and Jon Erwin, isn’t up to par with the rest of the film’s production, especially in scenes where one might expect high racial tension. Segregation – an incredibly divisive time in American history – is sadly treated with kid gloves beyond the point of where it needs to be. It’s true that the writers made the right call by opting not to include racial slurs in the film, but a film about how faith and love overcomes hate gets chopped off at the knees when the hate viewers observe on screen doesn’t come remotely close to what those who lived through the era remember.
In spite of its flaws, “Woodlawn” continues what may be a turning of the corner in the “faith-based film” genre following the success of “War Room,” and is an improvement on that more popular movie in nearly every respect.
Audiences wanting to see more faith-based films on the big screen will want to take advantage of this unique opportunity to not only support the genre in hopes of sending a message to film studios that moviegoers want more faith-based projects, but also to catch what may likely be one of the best films in the genre this decade.