Faith, football and fractured history: Evangelical filmmakers talk racism in ‘Woodlawn’
Faith-based films trend ever upward and directors Jon and Andrew Erwin continue to put forth their Sunday best.
“Woodlawn," based on a true story, serves as the latest from Erwin Brothers -- who directed “October Baby” and “Mom’s Night Out.” The period piece transports viewers to 1970s Birmingham to tell the story of “Touchdown Tony” Nathan, a running back with a strong reception and a stronger will. Portrayed by Caleb Castille in his film debut, Nathan experiences the spiritual awakening and conversion of his high school football team and endures persistent racism as an African-American in his Alabama hometown.
While the film is set to release on October 16, a handful of members from King’s Image Films, led by President Joseph Holmes ('15), attended a director’s cut screening last week. Afterwards, students engaged in an exclusive audience talkback with Caleb Castille and Jon Erwin. Holmes reflected on the film’s “breathtaking cinematography, particularly in the football sequences, and brilliant actors such as Sean Astin and Jon Voight.”
The Erwin Brothers extensive background in the sport helped them recreate moments in Woodlawn history such as the legendary game against the Banks Jets. The camera hides none of the intensity that comes with the competition, latching onto Nathan as he charges across the football field towards victory in breathtaking crescendo.
“I loved the way they represented a football brotherhood, and the passion behind the sport," said Rolando Nieves Jr. ('19).
At the talkback, Castille joked with the audience.
“This is my first [acting] job. Thanks for not throwing tomatoes,” said Castille.
He revealed that -- prior to his casting -- the Erwin Brothers recruited him to be the running back’s body-double, due to his own athletic ability and knowledge of the sport. The Erwin Brothers take seriously the importance of style and production quality, embracing all the hallmarks of box office action hits as they pave the way for evangelical films.
But the story does not keep all of its promises. The film opens with a montage of news reels depicting race riots and bombings in 1960s Birmingham, overlapping the cries of Martin Luther King Jr. with those of segregationist Governor Wallace. Set directly in the throes of the civil rights movement, the film demands a discourse on the issue of racism.
“There are so many plot points that are brought up but never fleshed out. Isolated scenes show violence and intimidation toward black families, a couple African-American characters suggest violent resistance as a way to respond…but none of these weave together as a strong narrative—which they easily could have," said Holmes.
He discusses a thematically-heavy scene where Nathan refuses to take a photo with Governor Wallace, who previously banned integration at University of Alabama.
“That confrontation is never thematically set up or brought up later in the movie…[The directors] portray racism as real, deeply present, and nakedly evil, and say unequivocally in the film that the only real answer is Jesus," said Holmes.
While true, this message shifts too quickly from discussing a pertinent social issue to a general one. The movie’s downfall—and biggest insult—is that the issue of racism is largely plot fodder, when matters of race and religion could have been combined to create a more effective cautionary tale about what happens when there is no true Christian involvement in issues of oppression.
While this curtailed discussion of racism could be chalked up to the narrow nature of the biopic, the film short-circuits its attempted historical narrative. Sean Astin portrays a white lay preacher responsible for converting Woodlawn’s football team. Subsequently, the twisted and complex issue of racism appears to disappear at the moment of conversion as Christianity and toleration spread throughout school, pitted against the segregationist powers-that-be who are always purported to be atheist. While this image demonstrates an example of true evangelism, it is problematic that Astin’s character informs the viewer’s entire dialogue of racism’s resolution. It creates a false dichotomy while failing to acknowledge the varying degrees of church involvement in the issue at large.
A broader perspective is documented in the 2014 drama “Selma” which articulates levels of activism across denominations during MLK’s great march and crusade for equal voting rights in 1964. In doing so, it also pays tribute to black Baptists, seen only within church confines in “Woodlawn”, who were perhaps the greatest Christian pioneers of the civil rights movement.
Caleb Castille, a believer in real life, informed the audience last week that he dedicates the film to “young African-American males. We need men, period, and African-Americans are struggling right now.” In advancing the cause of racial equality, the film works best as a springboard for broader discussion, as supplementary reading for a much larger narrative. The Erwin Brothers recognize man’s sinful nature at the center of racism as well as the need for God to change hearts.
The most compelling point of the film was not the conversion, but the fruits of it—the fact that God used an oppressed man for his glory, overcoming great odds and trials in his pursuit of excellence.
“The reason Christian movies have done so well…is that they do celebrate things that many of us hold dear: God and our faith in him. This movie, despite narrative flaws, does that, which is why I enjoyed it and I think others will too," said Holmes.