As with War Room, it’s a bit difficult to be completely objective with a Christian faith based film when you are a believer. Especially when the film just happens to be a true story of faith and not fiction. Woodlawn is a true story. It is a genuine tale of the miraculous spiritual transformation of a high school football team still suffering from the ungodly malignancy of racism.
After a brief historical prologue of racial protests and violence, we fade in on the recently desegregated Woodlawn High School where Coach Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop) struggles to keep the peace between his Black and White football players. He’s not exactly thrilled, or enforcing either. The ivory skinned players insist that playing together and showering together with their Black counterparts are two different things.
Our main focus is on promising young Running Back, Tony Nathan, the very first African American to play football for Woodlawn. He is quite talented, and the coach knows it. Tony is eventually joined by other Black players, much to the chagrin of the Caucasian group who at times during practice try to inflict as much physical hurt on them as possible.
Just when Coach Gerelds may feel it’s a hopeless case, in walks Hank (Lord of the Rings alum Sean Astin). He humbly introduces himself as a Sports Chaplain and asks the coach if he could talk to the team, claiming that he might be able to make a difference in their behavior. Gerelds brushes him off with several dismissive remarks despite Hank’s persistence. It is only through the persuasion of his assistant coach (Rodney Clark), that Gerelds grudgingly concedes, and permits this outsider an audience with his players. Many film critics and regular movie goers would probably be skeptical, but when Hank gives his “motivational speech” on making a decision for Christ, nearly all 40 of them step down from the gymnasium bleachers and say, “yes.”
Making a decision for Jesus certainly does not mean everything will be alright, or that you will win every game you play now. Our changed players discover this truth all too well as they still must overcome personal issues through prayer to become the team God wants them to be.
For a literal newcomer, Caleb Castille, who had less than three days to prepare for the role when he was chosen, channels Tony Nathan’s trials and triumphs into a totally convincing, dramatic performance. Prayerfully,we’ll see more of him. On top of the overt racist attitudes, he must deal with all the typical personal hangups with parents, friends, girlfriends and their fathers, and trying to be the best player he can be for the Lord.
Sean “Samwise Gamgee” Astin has certainly not rested on his proverbial laurels since Mordor. He has appeared in many tv shows and movies since traveling with Mr. Frodo. His range of characters is solidly extended playing the faith driven Hank. Astin’s sincerity aptly reveals the Sports Chaplain’s own triumphs and tragedies, realizing that sometimes God permits things to happen to you for a greater purpose.
Critics may tear Woodlawn apart cinematically, as they did with various other faith based films. But one would think that since this faith based film was an actual event in American History, they could give it a break. Faith in Christ can be hard to understand, even for Christians. Yet the Woodlawn football team were able to change their lives because of it.