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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Woodlawn movie review: Jesus is an Alabama football fan, obvs

Woodlawn red light

A film taken with the singular American delusion that Jesus loves football… though it also throws in a new delusion: Jesus hates the U.S. Constitution.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of “faith-based” films

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The power of Christ compels you! To win football games! I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film more taken with the singular American delusion that Jesus loves football… though, to be fair, it also throws in a new delusion: that Jesus also hates the U.S. Constitution. Woodlawn is fun that way.

Ostensibly, the movie — from the Christian filmmaking team of brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin — wants to be about how Jesus helped defuse the tension arising from the forced racial integration of Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama, in the early 1970s. But how this might have occurred is never dramatized. Somehow, apparently, it was down to a “sports chaplain” (Sean Astin: Do You Believe?, Click) converting nearly the whole damn Woodlawn football team that had something to do with it. But what that means, specifically, is never clear. Certainly white people of faith were deeply involved in the civil-rights movement, and I’m sure it would be nice to see a movie about them — I mean, why not hijack another story from black Americans? But this is not that story.

The real problem with Woodlawn is that it doesn’t seem to know what its story is. It doesn’t give any room at all to its putative central character, talented black high-school football player Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille), to do much of anything, even while he’s supposed to be deciding what he wants out of life. He went on to play in the NFL, but whatever personal journey he took on the way to committing himself to football is absent here; mostly he sits around beaming beatifically at white people — such as his coach, Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop), and legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul Bryant (Jon Voight: Four Christmases, An American Carol) — as they behave in nobly unracist ways. (It’s difficult to tell because he has so little to do, but newcomer Castille could have a future onscreen; he certainly is swoon-inducing movie-star handsome.)

Woodlawn seems more concerned with demonizing the U.S.’s legally mandated separation of Church and State than with anything else, casting Birmingham’s Board of Education as evil racists when it informs Gerelds that he really cannot, in a public school, lead prayers before a game. If there were any dissenters in Woodlawn High School, any atheists or students of other faiths who resented having the Christian religion forced upon them — as there almost certainly had to be — there is no evidence of them here. (Though there is one teacher who proclaims that “I was an atheist last week” but has been converted by the mere fact that students have set up a prayer group. Only someone with no understanding of atheism could have concocted such a bizarre notion. This movie is allegedly based on fact, but I doubt this tidbit is.)

The film’s narration opens by announcing that “some call what happened here a miracle.” We have no idea what this is referring to, unless it’s meant to be the fact that a lot of people later turned out for a high-school football game because Jesus. Woodlawn suffers badly from an aggressive and overpowering score, dialogue that sounds like everyone talking knows they’re in a movie, and an overall sense of desperation to sell the viewer on Christianity as a force for good. If that’s a miracle, it’s one performed by a weak, anxious, uncertain deity.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Woodlawn for its representation of girls and women.

red light 1 star

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Woodlawn (2015)
US/Can release: Oct 16 2015

MPAA: rated PG for thematic elements including some racial tension/violence

viewed on my iPad

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • RogerBW

    A Jesus film and a sports film both at once. This is not a good time of year to be a film critic.

  • How confident should we be that there’s no peer pressure put upon the non-devout kids to keep their apostasy to themselves…?

  • bronxbee

    there’s tons of peer pressure. my family, originally from new york, moved (for reasons too complicated to get into) into the deep south. i have nephews and nieces that graduated from a *public* high school that you would swear was an evangelical institution. every speech at the graduation, from the principal, teachers and saludictorian and validictorian, to the high school sports coach (football of course) praised jesus, called on the lord almighty and led prayers during the ceremony. my family, on the whole, are at the most agnostics or pagans, with some large sprinkling of atheists in there. we are always uncomfortable at these events. yet, our children are graduating and sometimes have done very well, winning awards, etc. their fellow students have always asked why they didn’t say something about god in their acceptances. you would never know the US Constitution has a separation of church and state, and most of these kids seem confused when the point is made. not all, of course. there are always outsiders, outliers, and non-conformists, even in the smallest of schools. but there is a lot of pressure.

  • Annastasia

    Why does a God scare you so much to even spend so much time making a big deal if He doesn’t exist..you would think if you didn’t believe in something you wouldn’t spend so much time trying to convince others about it..it would be like Santa Claus and tooth fairy..when little kids believe in that do you make such a ruckus trying to convince the world that they have no room to mentioned during Christmas or your childs first tooth loss..or movies that presented Easter bunnies,fairies and anything else presented within our culture..maybe why you make a big deal about God is because it scares the hell out of you that He is real and that would mean you would have to be accountable to someone greater than yourself..and by the way scientifically speaking, or even a simple minded one always will come to the one conclusion that this earth didn’t create itself..there always has to be a beginning..and even if we all came from molecules,or atoms or whatever type of matter..where did that matter come from..where did it get its beginning to create..?? So who is far fetched to believe in what is obviously bigger than you and me..#reverence

  • Danielm80

    You seem to be responding to words that don’t appear in the review. MaryAnn is an atheist, but she didn’t tell anyone not to believe in God. She reviewed a film, and she pointed out flaws and improbabilities in the plot. There seem to be a lot of them. I believe in God (I’m an observant Jew), and I’m a little irritated to see God represented by such an illogical, poorly-written movie.

    You seem to think—without much evidence—that MaryAnn is obsessed with God and religion. But it seems a little obsessive for you to seek out a random movie critic and attack her beliefs—especially when you put words in her mouth to do it.

    If people genuinely believe in God, one movie review shouldn’t be enough to shake their faith. The review may not even convince them to avoid the movie. They may decide that they disagree with MaryAnn so strongly about religion, they can’t trust her judgment about films, either. It makes me wonder why the review scares you so much. A lot of people would just dismiss the review and find a critic they like better. Or, if they’re like me, they might dismiss the movie and decide that God deserves a more thoughtful, meaningful film.

  • it would be like Santa Claus and tooth fairy

    People worshipping the fucking Tooth Fairy are not trying to control my vagina or tell me who I can or cannot marry, and they are not denying the reality of global warming because they would be *delighted* for the biblical Armageddon to finally hit.

    You want atheists to shut up about your god? Keep your religion to yourself.

    maybe why you make a big deal about God is because it scares the hell out of you

    Yeah, that’s it. Just like you’re secretly terrified that you won’t get to spend eternity in Valhalla because you have not been paying obeisance to Thor.


  • Bluejay

    it would be like Santa Claus and tooth fairy..when little kids believe in that do you make such a ruckus trying to convince the world that they have no room to mentioned

    If you’re trying to argue for the existence of God, maybe it’s not the best strategy to compare believers to little kids who should be allowed to believe in pretend characters because they don’t know any better yet. Just a tip.

    a simple minded one always will come to the one conclusion that this earth didn’t create itself

    I agree. Simple-minded ones will conclude that.

    there always has to be a beginning…where did that matter come from..where did it get its beginning to create..??

    Obviously, the only answer is that the universe was created by an overwhelmingly powerful, incomprehensible, intelligent force that cares deeply about school prayer, birth control, appropriate bathrooms, and American football.

    If there is a God, I suspect it’s wholly unconcerned with what we think it’s concerned with. Or maybe it assigned our planet to some petty local deity who didn’t pass the exam to get its full God-license. Or maybe it’s a big supernatural mosquito, who’s finally letting its chosen creatures inherit the promised land via Zika virus. What’s the bzzz, tell me what’s a-happenin’…

  • Bluejay
  • the only answer is that the universe was created by an overwhelmingly powerful, incomprehensible, intelligent force

    Who of course brought himself into being, no problem. But a self-creating universe? Whoa, let’s be reasonable here…

  • I do, but purely for the pleasure of it now. Valhalla sounds awful.

  • Gilbert

    Whatever your opinion of the separation of church and state, the fact is that it is not in the constitution, but was constitutionally interpreted in to the constitution like so many other exercises of judicial activism (abortion, homosexual “marriage”, pornography as speech, etc.)
    What the constitution actually prevents is for the federal government to choose an official religion for the whole country, and that is very different from mandating that the government be secular.

  • Leigh Macfarlane

    Actually, I think this is a decent film. I liked it quite a bit. And I disagree both that the plot was not cohesive and that the main point of the movie was castigating the political system. This is not a football story, it is a faith story, and it is set in a time and place which presents both race relations and political changes as part of the backdrop. Neither of which are touched upon with any great significance, in my opinion, as neither was the intent of this film. The plot of this story is two-fold — that following Jesus creates moments of choice in who you will be and how you will live, and that following Jesus’ teachings regarding loving one another can affect change in the world around you. The show could have been more focused if they chose only one of these aspects and delved in detail on it, but the duality does not destroy the film, it just makes it a bit more general, perhaps. My personal opinion is not that the movie is flawed in the manners she describes so much as it is simply not the movie she thought she would be watching, and her opinion of it appears to be colored by that fact. I’d agree with her about the score, though, particularly at the beginning of the movie.

  • Leigh Macfarlane

    As well, I think the idea that you can’t say the Lord’s Prayer in public schools may not have been a solidified sentiment in 1971, when this Time’s Magazine article came out (roughly the time period of this movie). Both the movie and the reviewer make a very big statement about this policy, but I remember saying the Lord’s Prayer in public school assemblies up until 1980 at least. I think possibly this is an ideal that is in today’s public conscience more than it was in the 70’s.

  • it just makes it a bit more general, perhaps

    Not really. Lots of people don’t follow Jesus.

  • Whatever the actual historical timeline (though I guarantee you that there most certainly atheists and pagans and Sikhs and Jews and Muslims existed in America in 1971, even in Alabama), this movie clearly believes that 21st-century audiences will agree with it that it’s evil to keep the practices of Christianity out of public schools. Which is a wholly unAmerican notion.

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