Hot Take: On the surface, Woodlawn is a decent docudrama with heavy pro-Christianity overtones. By the end, you realize it’s what Remember the Titans would have been if it were infused with religion and stripped of any real racial tension.
Early in Woodlawn, Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille) gets his first shot at being the tailback for the recently integrated Woodlawn High School football team. While the black running back shows promise, he doesn’t like being hit. Coach Tandy (Nic Bishop) gives Nathan a pep talk about how it can be helpful to hit someone who is trying to hit you. From then on (in one of it’s many turbo stories of success), Nathan continues to run fast and evade tacklers but, occasionally, he runs through a few would-be tacklers and even over a couple. Unfortunately, the Erwin Brothers, the film’s directors, stick to the flashy faith-based narrative throughout the movie but runs out of bounds whenever any other issues are brought into this “based on a true story” film.
While Woodlawn tackles freedom of religion in public schools and osmotically delivers the message that faith in God and Jesus will power you to great things, it jukes around the issue of racial divide in 1970s Alabama. It’s not that Woodlawn doesn’t acknowledge the issue but the racial divide is presented as a crack in the sidewalk rather than a chasm.
Overall, Woodlawn isn’t a bad movie but it isn’t a courageous one, either. The film does a lot of preaching to the choir. It’s message of tolerance partnered with the preaching of “one way” and absence of acceptance of all beliefs will likely be troubling to a non-Christian audience. There’s also a promise of a miracle which given any deep thought doesn’t really seem to be more than happenstance.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Great Visuals
Football is one of the tougher sports to translate to the big screen. While the football scenes are fleeting, they are beautifully shot. Late in the film, the movie has a great opportunity to blend actual footage with the movie scenes and adds to the credibility of the film.
The performances in the film are believable and done with conviction. Sean Astin delivers a strong performance as Hank, a man who was changed by the love he felt at Explo ’72, a Christian revival meeting at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas.
- A Story Worth Telling
Nathan’s story is one worth being told. Putting aside the flaws of the film, Woodlawn‘s protagonist is compelling and worthy of a feature length biopic.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Passive Aggressive Message
While there are mentions of tolerance, the “One Way” message is overt. There’s some contradicting moments those looking to nitpick will latch onto and those looking to applaud will celebrate. There’s an effort to stay neutral but unfortunately it causes the movie to get stuck in neutral instead.
- Christianity Wasn’t New to Alabama But You’d Sure Think It Was
The checkered past of spirituality and tolerance in Alabama are in the periphery (there’s mention of the Civil Rights Movement and a silent cameo by the 16th Street Church, the site of one of the most despicable hate crimes in U.S. history) but Christianity as a cure to all that ailed Alabama when it came to racial relations was presented as a somewhat new concept.
- No Depth
There’s little to no chance Woodlawn will be able to avoid the comparisons to Remember the Titans. The character development of Remember the Titans isn’t there in Woodlawn. Instead, the characters are presented as passengers who are along for the ride as they give themselves to the teachings of Jesus.