‘Woodlawn’ Tries To Give School Prayer Credit For 1970s School Desegregation

The most divisive and poisonous of the recent crop of “faith-based” movies are all based on the premise that Christians are under constant attack from bigoted non-believers. Christian folks just want to keep to themselves and believe in God, but the secular world won’t let them! The wildly successful God’s Not Dead, and its incredibly titled sequel, God’s Not Dead 2 (whose trailer is playing before Woodlawn), for instance, are both based on the formula of someone in a position of power demanding that Christians admit that “God is dead.” Happens all the time, right?

As a representative of the Godless media, I feel compelled to prove them wrong, by at least trying to find an overtly faith-based movie that isn’t terrible. Even when they hide them from us, like they did with Woodlawn, which didn’t screen for critics.

For about 10 minutes, Woodlawn has potential. The film opens with a brief recounting of a 1970 football game between Bear Bryant’s University of Alabama and USC, the first racially integrated team Alabama had ever hosted. After USC’s victory, thanks in large part to its black running back, Sam Cunningham, Bryant, played by Jon Voight, visits the opposing team in the locker room. He graciously congratulates them, shakes Cunningham’s hand, and tells him he’s “a real football player.”

Asked why he did it, Bryant, looking dapper and wise in his houndstooth hat, says something about respect and fairness, ending with the rhetorical question, “After all, isn’t that what the good book says?”

Woodlawn looks great, Jon Voight plays an eminently watchable Bear Bryant, and it opens on this rather big-hearted note. People driven to do the right thing by a compassionate, non-pushy application of their faith? Sure, I’d watch that movie. Sadly, Woodlawn is not that movie.

From there, we meet Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille, himself a former Alabama player), a black tailback at Birmingham’s recently integrated Woodlawn high school. He plays on the football team under Coach Gerelds, played by cube-jawed Nic Bishop, who exudes “football coach” so strongly you’d think he sleeps in polyester shorts. The team is being torn apart by the same forces at work all over the South, and there are so many race-related fights that the principal is threatening to shut down the school.

That is, until, a mysterious stranger shows up begging to talk to Coach Gerelds’ team. That stranger is played, somewhat incongruously, by Sean Astin (his casting might be intended as some kind of reference to Rudy), who doesn’t seem charismatic enough to rally a group of rowdy kids to a Waffle House, let alone the arms of Jesus. Astin plays Hank, a “sports chaplain,” who walks with a cane and begs Gerelds for just five minutes with the kids. That five minutes turns into an hour, which the movie would have us believe was life-changing. It doesn’t look like much though, just Hank saying some vague things about love and holding up a Time magazine cover about “The Jesus Revolution,” which Woodlawn references so often that it was clearly the basis for the entire story.

You have to give Woodlawn credit for creative truthiness. This is a movie that, drawing on the facts of Tony Nathan’s Christian faith and football career, would have us believe that it wasn’t until a mysterious chaplain told him “God wants you to be a superstar” that he came into his own.

It’s disappointing, because there’s actually a pretty good story here, and one flattering to Christians, that doesn’t need to be gilded and twisted like Woodlawn is so clearly trying to do. Later in the film, Tony Nathan’s cross-town rival, star quarterback Jeff Rutledge, from the rich school with the fancy practice field shows up. As Alabama’s two breakout high school stars, Nathan and Rutledge, rather than vowing to destroy each other, both give it up to Jesus, the teams hold their training camps together, and the two become not only models of good sportsmanship, but of racial understanding and Christian compassion. Great!

The trouble is Woodlawn‘s unconvincing search for an antagonist. It briefly, confusingly references black militarism, before eventually falling back on that old standby as an antagonist: the secular world. Coach Gerelds goes all in, getting baptized in Nathan’s church, and letting the pastor pump up his team with Jesus speeches before every game. He eventually gets called in to the principal’s office to be (rightly) questioned about why he’s allowed his public school football team to paint crosses on their shields like the gridiron answer to Constantine’s army.

We were doing so well! All this God stuff was just something the players came to on their own, and look how much good it’s done! Who would complain? Naturally, it was the racist white dad whose son Tony Nathan replaced as starter.

“I think this is more about the color of my tailback than about God!” Gerelds rages, as the principal and the racist dad with the porny mustache sit across from him sneering.

Thus, Woodlawn posits that the only person who could complain about organized prayer in school is a racist. This despite both Coach Gerelds and the chaplain shouting “one way!” to their players as they run out onto the field before the games. “One way,” incidentally, is shorthand for “the one way is Jesus.”

Now, I realize there probably weren’t a lot of Buddhists in 1974 Alabama, but imagine if the kids had “independently” accepted Judaism, or Allah instead of Christianity, and ask yourself how that might go. “I didn’t want to believe it at at first either,” you can imagine Coach Gerelds saying, “but once the kids started eating halal and following Sharia law, look how unified they’ve become! How could anyone argue with that?”

A movie about how faith helped some people could’ve been welcome, but it’s hard to accept Woodlawn‘s message of inclusiveness when it’s built on a foundation of excluding any other religions. It’s hard to buy that this brand of Christianity is fighting for the rights of the minority while so clearly throwing their own weight around as the majority religion. It seems completely ignorant (willfully ignorant?) of this too, couching its Christian bullying in yet another persecution narrative.

It’s laughable, because even in the narrative, there’s patently no persecution. Coach Gerelds makes out like the Nattering Nabobs of secularism drove him from football, and quits to go sell insurance. Keep in mind, he wasn’t fired, and when he wanted to return to coaching a year later, the school welcomed him with open arms. So… why all this martyr complex crap?

As a Woodlawn character says, “If you only love the people who love you, what kind of love is that?” Similarly, if you only respect the beliefs of other people who believe in the divinity of Jesus, what kind of respect is that?

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.