A few weeks back, I went on a press trip to do–well, a lot of things.
And while that weekend was quite remarkable for all that we were able to see, do, learn and walk away with (spiritually and in memories), one of my favorite moments was getting the chance to attend a screening of a new film called Woodlawn. One of the directors, Andrew Erwin, as well as two of the stars, Caleb Castille, and the always entertaining Sherri Shepherd were on the press trip with us. We got to know them (and dance with them) as everyday people and see their newest project before many others. And when I tell you it’s a film that will move you in ways you can’t imagine, I’m not just saying so to fill white space in a review and fulfill a word count (I don’t have one by the way).
Woodlawn is a Christian film. But it’s also a football film. And a film about a harrowing time in our history. All that, and it’s also based on a true story. It’s the tale of former NFL star Tony Nathan, the racial tension he had to navigate when his Birmingham, Ala., high school, Woodlawn, was integrated, and how faith brought not only a football team but a community together. That’s one of the great things about it. While other Christian films, like the mega-successful War Room, don’t initially look like they would appeal to everyone, Woodlawn has something for everyone.
And it also has major star power, which many Christian films often lack. As previously mentioned, Shepherd stars, playing Nathan’s mother. Academy Award winner Jon Voight plays Paul “Bear” Bryant, the former head coach of the University of Alabama’s football team, who motivates Nathan while also hoping to recruit him. And actor Sean Astin, of Lord of the Rings, Rudy, and The Goonies fame, plays Hank, the evangelist who came to Birmingham and changed the lives of those who went to the school by introducing them to Jesus Christ.
But it’s Castille who really makes his mark in this film. The burgeoning actor, who actually was a walk-on turned star football player in his own right at the University of Alabama, gives a gripping performance. Grabbing your attention even when he’s quiet, with striking eyes in which his emotions shine through. He’s an endearing character. He only wants to play football and, if possible, use the opportunity to have an impact and improve his life, the life of his family, and the life of the woman he loves. But he has to do all that while dealing with racism and the oppression that comes with it from those in the community and some of his own teammates. Did I mention that he’s also trying to help his team win a state title? Talk about pressure.
But what really shines the most in this 123-minute film is the story, which through a successful effort to shine a light on family and football, also puts the importance of faith front and center. And while some Christian films can sometimes come off a little too preachy (and in turn, feel cheesy to some), I left with the gospel song “I Need Just A Little More Jesus” in my head. I could literally shout recounting my own blessings as I walked out of the theater. The way the people in Birmingham were changed not only by the success of the Woodlawn High School football team but by being introduced to Jesus was overwhelming, and it left me on the edge of my seat. Clapping at every high moment, and almost on the brink of tears during the low moments. And no, I’m not usually one of those loud moviegoers. But as a Christian, who didn’t know what to expect from this film, I couldn’t stop talking about it once we got back to our shuttle bus and once I returned to New York. I wasn’t ashamed about it then, and I’m definitely not ashamed now to say that God is good! And so is this film.
So, in case you hadn’t heard much about it, Woodlawn comes out today (October 16). It’s a film that you, yes you, can enjoy and walk away with something meaningful from. Whether it’s the importance of teamwork, the ups and downs of leadership, the benefit of having the support of family, or the power, grace and love of Jesus Christ.