“Woodlawn” Challenges Boundaries of Race and Faith

“Woodlawn” is a compelling, beat-the-odds, inspirational, motivational, story of struggle and the triumph of love over hatred. Clichés aside, all of that is true. Based on a true story, the movie opens in theaters on October 16.
Set in the early seventies, “Woodlawn” illustrates the fight of a young African-American who plays football for a recently desegregated high school team in Birmingham, Alabama. More than that, though, Woodlawn is about how a Christian revival is brought about by one man’s desire to preach the gospel to a disgruntled group of teens and adults.
The main character, Tony Nathan (played by Caleb Castille), joins his high school’s football team shortly after the school is desegregated in 1973. Athough the rules have officially changed, it doesn’t mean that everyone is on board. Several of Tony’s teammates mock and belittle him, trying to get him to quit the team. But his coach, Tandy Geralds (played by Nic Bishop), does what he can to keep the peace.
During this strife, Hank (Sean Astin) comes onto the scene and presents the gospel message to the team. In one preaching, practically the whole team accepts Christ and is transformed.
The team goes on to battle inner struggles and outside attacks while influencing their friends and teachers for Christ. Before long, their faith is shaken and attacked by losses, opposing teams, the school board and even physical threats.
Ultimately, everything works together for the good of those who love the Lord.

A well-made movie
“Woodlawn” is very well made and doesn’t have any of the awkward dialogue often associated with Christian films. The acting is phenomenal; each of the actors plays his or her role very convincingly and with a lot of feeling. Caleb Castille, who plays the lead role, performs extremely well.
This is definitely a case of great movie meets great message. There is certainly no mistaking the strong gospel message throughout the movie, but it isn’t forced as it so often is. The Gospel plays a central role without feeling clumsy or strangely and unnecessarily inserted. It gets the message across and, more importantly, it gives a good reason for accepting that message. By showing that through faith in Christ we can overcome all obstacles, even our own faults, it gives viewers something to consider when deciding to accept or reject the faith it presents.
The movie is a great tool for bringing people to Christ, particularly young people. Youth groups can and should find group tickets and turn out to see and support “Woodlawn.” There are even resources available online to start Bible studies for churches, small groups, youth groups or individuals (woodlawnresources.com). Church leaders ought to take advantage of this opportunity to lead others using a film such as this one to bring people closer to Christ.

Relevant for our time
Although the movie is set in a time that seems distant, Woodlawn offers so much for viewers in 2015. With racial tensions mounting in recent months and Christianity being constantly condemned as divisive, this movie has a lot to teach about how being a true follower of Jesus is the best way to overcome division and to bring unity. Clinging to parties, races or factions will only bring division. Clinging to Jesus and learning from his word how to love others as he loves us is the most unifying force available to humanity.
“Woodlawn” is an extremely encouraging film that helps reaffirm our faith. Many Christians are losing hope fast as we see the world seemingly shattering before our eyes — same-sex marriage is the law of the land, the United States is supporting Iran, babies are being killed in droves in horrifying ways in clinics across the country, Christians are being beheaded and crucified and no one seems to care. It can be scary to think about.
But God has not given us a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7). We can’t keep our eyes fixed on this world. Our faith, hope, and vision should be on our Lord; only he can set things right and bring the world closer to him. We need to pray for God’s presence in our lives and do what he commands us to do: love one another. “Woodlawn” puts on display for all the world to see what happens when God shows up.

Tami Fernandez is a freelance writer for the Good News while she attends SEBTS in North Carolina with her husband and hopes to become a missionary to the Far East. She can be reached at [email protected].

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