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It was just after 1 PM when I snapped. There was nothing unusual about the day; it was the same as any other Friday in my work-a-day life. But maybe that was the problem. Maybe it was the very ordinariness of the day, the sheer bearability of it, that made it so unbearable. I couldn’t go on. I couldn’t continue to sit there, playing by their rules, like nothing was wrong. I had to leave. I had to get far, far away from that drab prison, with its e-mails, and its production reports, and its soul-rending conformity. I had to break free. I had to run. I told no one. I just walked off the job without a word, drove to a sticky-floored old movie theater on the edge of town, and bought a ticket for 124 minutes of something like escape.
It is the frayed edge of the tapestry of life that is on display Friday afternoons at the cineplex. There are the young, the truant scofflaws, who should be in school learning how to reduce fractions, chat up girls, and process grief, but have slipped the leash for a few hours and have come here to hide out. There are the old, the refugees from a wakeful death, who boarded the convalescent home short bus, destination unknown, just to taste the fresh air, just to feel the sun, and were deposited here, at the old movie house, where the air is stale and the sun never shines. And then there’s me, somewhere in between: grim harbinger to the young, patient understudy to the old, faceless worker who just couldn’t take another minute.
Together, we are the Anarcho-Cinemalists, united in our impotent midday defiance, our shared moment of empty freedom in the flickering darkness, and our passionate love of Mike-and-Ikes.
Whaddya think, guys? A little too heavy for a post about a sports movie? Yeah, you’re probably right. It’s a post on a group blog, not the lost sequel to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
Which few people know was called The Sound and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.
Let’s get on with this.
Woodlawn is the true story of the forced integration of a Birmingham high school in the 1970s, as told through the prism of its football team. Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings; Rudy Ruettiger in Rudy) stars as Hank, a motivational speaker whose message unites the racially divided team and sparks a movement that forever changes race relations, not just at Woodlawn High, but in the entire city of Birmingham.
Astin is joined by veteran actor Nic Bishop, playing skeptical head coach Tandy Gerelds. Gerelds is slow to embrace the change he sees around him, suspicious in the way adults so often are of messages that resonate with a younger generation. Newcomer Caleb Castille plays Tony Nathan, the African-American football player who lives out Hank’s radical message of hope, even at great personal risk to himself and his family. Academy Award-winner Jon Voight plays Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama coach who aggressively recruits Nathan, hoping he will bring his football talent and inspirational message of brotherhood and change to the still segregated Crimson Tide.
Woodlawn is well-shot in a consistent style. Directors Andrew and Jon Erwin are able to capture the inherent urgency of on-field sports action without rendering it frenetic or disconnected. The soundtrack is a bit on the nose, but it still offers the sound of 1970s America, a necessary complement to the period look and feel of Woodlawn. A tighter story would have allowed for a deeper exploration of the central characters; a more nuanced portrait of main character Tony Nathan would have added to the poignancy of an already moving story. All together, Woodlawn is an enjoyable, uplifting film. Definitely worth seeing. Two thumbs up.
In case you couldn’t tell, dear reader, that was my best impression of a movie critic. I love movies as much as the next guy; probably more so. But I don’t have the knowledge of movie history or the grasp of cinematic nuance that a professional film critic has. I really did enjoy Woodlawn, and I wish I could provide you with a link to a proper review written by a talented film critic whose insight and perspective would do the movie justice.* But I’m the best you’re gonna get, because no one in the legitimate film press has bothered to write so much as a paragraph about Woodlawn.
This is unusual. Movies in wide release never go completely unreviewed by the Hollywood press. If this were an obscure student film being screened on the side of a barn outside Norman, OK, or a seven-hour art house exploration of the tantric sexuality of Boston ferns, I would understand. But we’re talking about a movie showing five times a day, every day, on more than 1,500 screens from Boise to Key Biscayne. We’re talking about a movie starring an Oscar winner and everybody’s favorite hobbit, with a subject matter fetishized by every Hollywood writer this side of William Rose, but I can’t find a single review written by anyone more qualified than me. How is this possible?
Ohh, I’m such a lousy movie reviewer; I forgot to mention something important about Woodlawn. Woodlawn is a Christian movie. I mean really Christian. There are no scenes, none, that fail to mention the transformative power of Christian faith. By the end of the movie — ahem, spoiler alert — everybody has converted to evangelical Christianity. The coach of the rival football team, Nathan’s Black Panther girlfriend, the long snapper, everybody. It’s Jesus, Jesus, Jesus; pillar to post, Jesus; two solid hours of Jesus. They could have called the movie Jesus Presents: Woodlawn! and it still would not have conveyed just how much Jesus you’re gonna get if you watch this movie.
The implication is as clear as it is tragic: Hollywood won’t acknowledge Woodlawn because it is unabashedly, unironically, unapologetically Christian.
Mel Gibson once told me that there is a cabal of militant atheist movie critics who meet in an Upper West Side deli and conspire to keep explicitly Christian movies like Woodlawn from ever reaching a mainstream audience.** I am not one to question Mel (he says mean things when he gets angry), so I am entirely open to the possibility that Hollywood is actively attempting to marginalize all things Christian. But at the risk of incurring Mel’s awesome wrath, there is a problem with that theory:
Here are 25 reviews from the mainstream press for last year’s Son of God. And here are another 25 for the Nic Cage rapture thriller Left Behind (which, by all accounts, should have, indeed, been left behind). And here are 39 for the Chronicles of Narnia. And 27 for Heaven is Real. And, of course, here are 43 for Mel’s own Passion of the Christ. I’ll even give you 20 for Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie and nine for that cinematic tour-de-force, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. And finally, here are 24 reviews for last August’s When the Game Stands Tall, another movie about high school football, dripping with religion, and starring none other than Jesus Himself.
Okay fine, not the actual Jesus; Jesus’ stunt double, Jim Caviezel. But you get the point.
Yes, the Hollywood press hates your Bible-reading guts. But they aren’t at all shy about telling you what they think of you. There have been hundreds of mainstream reviews of Christian movies published just this year, most of which are witheringly critical, no doubt partly animated by a naked hostility to religious values. But hostile though they may be, those reviews were published. Every time Christianity dares to rise above the subtext in a film set for wide release, Hollywood lets loose on it, with both godless and cynical barrels smoking.
But for Woodlawn, the critics are the dog that didn’t bark. They aren’t savaging Woodlawn. They could. It is crushing in its heavy-handedness and at times embarrassingly simplistic in its aww-shucks brand of Christianity. If I were a failed screenwriter arrogant enough to think other people wanted to read my review of a movie I wasn’t talented enough to make myself (hey, wait…), I could have written a damning review on my iPhone before even leaving the theater. Hollywood undoubtedly hates Woodlawn with the incandescent passion it usually reserves for overfrothed lattes and Katherine Heigl, but … nothing. No one will touch Woodlawn.
I’m really such an awful, awful movie reviewer. That review just didn’t do Woodlawn justice. Would you mind if I try again?
Woodlawn is a searing civil rights movie, depicting a world of hate and violence without hope. Based on a true story, the film opens on a black screen with a quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. It takes us through footage of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, painting a grim picture of 1970s Birmingham as a burning cauldron of unchecked racial animus. Then it makes the hate from the old footage real by showing that the same homicidal violence that killed four young girls at 16th Street Baptist has come to the steps of recently-integrated Woodlawn High. Woodlawn, like all of Birmingham, is on the edge of the abyss, angry and frightened, waiting for the spark they know is coming.
Into this Hell steps Hank Erwin (the real-life father of Woodlawn directors Andrew and Jon Erwin). Hank has no special training; he isn’t an expert on race. He is just an ordinary man who went to a revival meeting in Dallas where the Christian message of hope and universal brotherhood affected him so deeply that he wants to share what he learned with the players on the Woodlawn football team. At first, the coach won’t let him — the cynical authority figure standing between real hearts and the truth. But when the coach relents, Hank’s message cuts through the hate in a way nothing else could. In a school, in a city, beyond hope, Hank’s message of love and unity rooted in simple Christian faith pulls Woodlawn and Birmingham back from the edge and puts them on a path to healing and real change.
Rated PG, with scenes of racial violence and adult language. Starring Sean Astin, Nic Bishop, Caleb Castille, C. Thomas Howell, Sherri Shepherd, and Jon Voight. Directed by Andrew and Jon Erwin. Provident Films. Runtime 124 minutes.
Okay, now I get it; now it makes sense. Now I see why a movie with a $25 million budget and bankable stars being released in the opening weeks of Oscar season and showing on 1,500 screens across the nation has been reviewed less times that Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas.
Woodlawn is, at its essence, a film about the impotence of a godless society as it struggles to confront the issue at the very core of the modern liberal creed — race. It is the all-too-true story of a time when our shared government failed us, but our common faith saved us. The Birmingham government, the Alabama government, the federal government, could do nothing to heal the racial divide and stop the violence. Hope was only possible, change was only possible, when an ordinary man with a Bible had the courage to defy the authorities and speak of a higher truth.
They’ll let you have your religion. They’ll mock you for it; they’ll profit from it; then when they’re done with it, they’ll let you have it. But they have their god, too; a god they will defend with the same ferocity with which you will defend yours. But theirs is a fragile god. And when confronted with a moving story, beautifully told, of a dark time when their god failed them, it is a god whose honor they can only defend with their silence.
* — After this was written, three short reviews of Woodlawn, one each from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and the Los Angeles Times, were published. Major releases are typically reviewed by between 30 and 50 mainstream film critics, with most reviews published the week prior to the film’s release.
** — I was going to make a joke about the Skull and Bones Society and the Freemasons holding a secret summit at the Build-a-Burger in the Johnstown Galleria Food Court in Johnstown, PA, but I just found out that the Johnstown Build-a-Burger is “temporarily closed.” A quick search of the Internet reveals there are no restaurants in the entire United States with a name appropriate for this joke. There is no Illuminachos. There is no Fry-Lateral Commission. There is no Rosicrustaceans. There is no Knights Tempura. This is not an accident, my friends.