“Where are you living from?” asks Junior Nathan to his son Tony. The young man taps his fist to his heart, and so begins the emotional true story of “Woodlawn”. The film portrays the events that unfolded at Woodlawn High School in the early 1970’s in Birmingham, Alabama. Woodlawn is going through the transition of desegregation, and is experiencing severe clashes between the races. It was on the verge of closing, until a spiritual revival–popular in other cities at the time—came to Woodlawn when evangelist/sports chaplain Hank Erwin offers an invitation to the Woodlawn football team to live another way.
Let me just say up front: this is not a movie that will tap dance around with some vaguely Christian/ religious message. Early and often, filmmakers Jon and Andrew Erwin (the real Hank Erwin’s sons) want you to know: Jesus is the way…the only way, and they make no apologies for it. As a Christian, this doesn’t bother me and I appreciate seeing a movie where there are lots of characters in real situations– each in their own personal stage of believing or not believing. It’s a refreshing change from the usual portrayals of believers that Hollywood gives as hypocrites who are either impossibly good or unbelievably bad.
Hank Erwin is played very convincingly by Sean Astin (“Lord of the Rings”, “Rudy”), who has become a familiar face in faith-based films in recent years. Whether Astin is a Christian or not, he does an exceptional job in his role persuading others why they should be one and how loving each other can restore unity to the school and the city. One of his most powerful scenes comes at the end at the pre-game prayer rally when Woodlawn is playing their biggest rival, Banks High School. That’s all I’ll say about that scene because if you want to know what happens…you just have to see the movie.
Another veteran actor –and an Academy Award winner no less– has a prominent role in this independent film. Jon Voight (“Coming Home”, “Midnight Cowboy”), who plays the legendary University of Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, is both poignant and humorous in his portrayal of the man who tirelessly pursues Tony Nathan to play for his team. Nathan is a young man with a talent for running who, in the midst of the racial turmoil around him, becomes a star athlete at Woodlawn. Newcomer Caleb Castille holds his own against the more seasoned actors in the cast with no problems. His Tony Nathan goes from being a soft-spoken football player with doubts about being in a school where he’s not wanted, to being a courageous team leader. If his performance in “Woodlawn” is any indication, Castille has a bright future in films.
Since the story is often told from the point of view of Woodlawn head coach Tandy Gerelds, I don’t want to overlook the work of Australian actor Nic Bishop (“Body of Proof”) in that role. His scenes with Castille are some of the most touching in the film. Kevin Sizemore (“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”) is his right-hand man Jerry Stearns, who often provides some much-needed comic relief.
Speaking of which, Sherri Shepherd (“The View”, “One for the Money”) gets in some great one-liners as Tony’s feisty mother Louise, and fans of ‘80’s films will recognize the familiar face of C. Thomas Howell (“The Outsiders”, “Red Dawn”), who plays George “Shorty” White. White was the coach of Woodlawn’s rival team Banks High School. In Howell’s hands, White is an over-the top character that lives and breathes football and gives the film some of its lighter moments.
Without a doubt, “Woodlawn” is a very ambitious film. There’s a lot going on here, aside from the obvious issues of racism, desegregation and faith. It touches on prayer in the public schools, domestic abuse, and facing fears head-on—lots of big life stuff. One very important point made is the relevance of fathers (and father figures) in the lives of young people, and how the lack of such relationships can negatively affect them. This is best shown in Tony’s relationship with his father (played by talented actor Lance E. Nichols) and Coach Gerelds, compared to his girlfriend Johnnie (Joy Brunson) who comes from a home with an abusive father and no mother. In a culture where parents—especially fathers—are ridiculed and made to look unnecessary, it’s good to see a film where strong men are raising their sons to be responsible to their families, to each other and to their community.
In fact, it’s really a perfect Father’s Day film, but the filmmakers may not want to wait that long to release the DVD.**
If you plan to see this movie, try to do so on opening weekend (Oct. 16th) because a strong showing at the beginning gets Hollywood’s attention and makes it more likely that films like “Woodlawn” will stick around and more will be made, as in the recent success of “War Room”.
You don’t have to like football (I don’t) to appreciate the message of “Woodlawn”. Some of the most inspiring films seem to revolve around it (“Rudy”, “Remember the Titans”). Next weekend, “Woodlawn” will join that distinguished list.
***NOTE: For more about this film, see last week’s posting on the making of “Woodlawn”.
**This DVD is now available
On the heels of the very successful faith-based film “War Room”, produced by the Kendrick Brothers (“Courageous”, “Fireproof”), another duo of filmmaking siblings is bringing the story of “Woodlawn” * to theaters in two weeks.
Jon and Andrew Erwin wrote, directed and produced the story of Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama during the tumultuous early 70’s when the school was becoming integrated. In a city torn apart by racial strife, the high school becomes the focal point of tension in a time of major change. Based on a true story, Woodlawn High School was on the verge of closing until a different kind of movement began. Against the backdrop of competition, racism and violence, a spiritual revival took place… and it started with the football team.
Jon Erwin was on hand recently when a very-nearly-done version of the film premiered at Legacy Arena in Birmingham at the conclusion of the Restoring Unity event (which was also produced by the Erwins). Prior to the showing, radio and TV host Glenn Beck interviewed Jon Erwin, producer and actor Kevin Downes, and cast members Jon Voight, Nic Bishop, Kevin Sizemore and Caleb Castille.
To say that the release of “Woodlawn” at this time is a miracle in itself would be an understatement. According to Downes, just a year prior to the Birmingham premiere, there wasn’t much to work with, given the length of time it normally takes for a film to go from an idea to the big screen. He said, “Twelve months ago, Jon and I were sitting in a parking lot going, should we shoot this movie this fall so that it could be out for our culture to witness it next fall?… we didn’t have a script, we didn’t have a story, we didn’t have money, we didn’t have a cast. I mean how all these gentlemen came into our cast is nothing short of miraculous and to me, God gets all the credit.”
That may explain how a little independent film of the Christian genre managed to attract the attention of an Academy Award-winning actor to play an iconic football coach. Jon Voight, who plays famed University of Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, was drawn to the character and work ethic of the Erwins. As he told the crowd in Birmingham, “I looked them up and they had a little video of their work together, and I looked at these guys, and I saw the way that they worked, the kindness to the people that they worked with, they joy they took in their work and Jon said, he said, “here’s how we make film…the best idea wins. So that meant he was collaborative and he was going to engage everyone in the process, which is what you have to have for the very best kind of film.”
It was more Divine Intervention that brought Caleb Castille into the cast. Castille plays Tony Nathan, a young African-American man who is integrated into Woodlawn High School. He goes on to become a star athlete who is recruited by Bear Bryant to play for Alabama. In an odd case of art imitating life, Castille was a football player at the University of Alabama. In fact, it could be said that playing for the Crimson Tide is sort of the Castille family business since both of his older brothers and his father played there. But in early 2013, in spite of his success on the field, Castille said he felt God was leading him away from football towards acting. As he put it, ‘Football was so comfortable to me, right, and through just being sick and tired of being sick and tired, I took the time to grow closer to the Lord, which in essence brought .. a better knowledge of why He put me on the earth.” Castille said he wants to reach people, and believes there’s no better way to do that than to work in films. For this film, Castille was hired to be the stunt double for the original actor, until a last-minute casting decision placed the young athlete-turned-actor into his first starring role.
Jon Erwin and his brother Andrew direct and produce “Woodlawn”, and Jon co-wrote the script with Quinton Peeples. Another of the main characters, Hank Erwin, played by Sean Astin, was inspired by the patriarch of the Erwin family. Hank Erwin was an evangelist, broadcaster and later, an Alabama state senator. The elder Erwin was in attendance at the premiere and later closed with a prayer. His son Jon praised him as a “great dad” and told the audience he’s had a great opportunity to honor him in this film and bring such a compelling story as “Woodlawn” to film-goers. He believes it has a relevant message for today. “It’s a story of an impossible situation…love, the love of Christ conquering hatred and if it happened then, it can happen now.”
“Woodlawn” opens in theaters around the country on October 16th. A review of the movie will be posted here next week.
***For behind-the-scenes geeks only: Check out the new Liberty Belle Blog TV channel on Vimeo for more audio from these on-stage interviews at the Birmingham premiere. There are 2: an un-edited one with a little more audio from Kevin Downes & Jon Erwin who both comment on the “War Room” /“Woodlawn” connection; The edited audio has sound bites from Erwin, Downes, Castille & Voight, who talks about playing Bear Bryant. Both include my own pics from the premiere, as well as photos from various websites, including www.woodlawnmovie.com.
St. Paul, Minnesota is about 1,000 miles from Birmingham, Alabama geographically. Both cities had gatherings this past weekend that, when looked at side by side, shows that perhaps more than miles separate them.
In St. Paul, police estimated between 350 and 500 people showed up at the Minnesota state fair on Saturday to support the “Black Lives Matter” march. Why pick the state fair to stage such an event? To make a point about economic disparities, of course. Organizer Rashad Turner said, “”There are going to be thousands of people, low-income people, in St. Paul who are going to smell that food, but they’re not going to be able to have any…a lot of people want to put the (Black Lives Matter) in a box and say, ‘You should focus on police brutality,’ but it’s also about the economic and social justices and how they’re interrelated.”
Turner encouraged the marchers to be peaceful; however, peace starts in the heart and comes out the mouth. According to Newsmax, the Black Lives Matter marchers chanted, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.” This derogatory reference to police came less than 24 hours after a Texas officer was gunned down in Houston Friday night while in uniform…while he was pumping gas.
In Birmingham, the Restoring Unity event (#NeverAgainIsNow) began with a march of anywhere from 20-30 thousand people through the Civil Rights district Saturday morning. At this time, I’ve found no national media coverage of this march, which Birmingham police had estimated numbers closer to 30,000 and said it was likely the largest march in the city since the 1963 Civil Rights marches.
Led by conservative radio commentator Glenn Beck, Bishop Jim Lowe of the Guiding Light Church, and Alveda King, niece of slain Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., the march began at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church. That church was the site of a deadly KKK attack in 1963 that killed 4 young girls.
Carrying signs that stated such things as “All Lives Matter”, “Courage”(under a photo of Frederick Douglass) and “God is the Answer”, the march moved through downtown Birmingham and crossed racial, generational and denominational barriers. Academy Award-winning actor Jon Voight was there, as was his friend Chuck Norris…and yours truly.
Ending at the Legacy Arena, the march began a day of speaking, singing, and praying. It’s hard to know how to describe the arena show. It was a little bit of a history lesson as historian David Barton of Wallbuilders spoke about how the youth of the Founding Generation took their places in history to forge independence.
It was a lot of a revival…having church on a Saturday afternoon and listening to the amazing voices of the gospel choir of the Guiding Light Church, powerful messages and prayers from Bishop Lowe, Alveda King, Pastor Rafael Cruz (father of Ted Cruz), and Johnnie Moore. Moore, an author and humanitarian, is an advocate for the Christians in the Middle East who are being marked for extinction in areas being overtaken by ISIS. He told stories of people there who have been executed by the terrorist group for refusing to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ; of women and young girls being sold as slaves, children being crucified and men burned alive in cages. He said the Christians there feel forgotten by their American brothers and sisters.
Then there was the call to action by Glenn Beck. Less than 2 weeks ago when he interviewed Johnnie Moore on his radio show, he vowed to raise a million dollars to help get some of these Christians and Yazidis into any safe country that will take them. He said a family of 5 can be sustained for one year for $25,000, giving them time to get on their feet to build a new life free from the threat of ISIS. As of Saturday, close to $3 million had been raised. He announced a new fundraising campaign called The Nazarene Fund, which will raise $10 million dollars by the end of the year in order to help these persecuted Christians get away from ISIS. He compared it to a modern day Schindler’s List, referring to Oskar Schindler, who saved about 1200 Jewish lives during WWII. Incidentally, Beck is an avid collector of historic artifacts and held up Schindler’s actual hand-written list of names of people that were saved from Nazi death camps.
Beck’s humanitarian organization Mercury One is the donation point for those who wish to help this cause.
There’s much more I could write about Saturday’s event that ended that night with the premier of “Woodlawn”, a faith-based film about the true story of a revival in Birmingham that began with a high school football team in a school on the verge of closing due to racial strife. Jon Voight, who plays Paul “Bear” Bryant in the movie, was at Restoring Unity all day, and appeared on stage with other cast members for an interview with Beck prior to the movie screening. More will be coming about that soon. More pictures and video of Restoring Unity will be posted on the Liberty Belle Blog Facebook page.