While films like War Room preach to the choir, Woodlawn says there’s room for everyone in “church.”
Last night, I worked with church leaders and school representatives to organize a trip of 235 people to go see Woodlawn. It’s the third time I’ve seen it, and I was excited by the prospect of introducing dozens of people to a film I’ve called “the best football movie since Friday Night Lights“. But while I’ve been working on this event for several weeks, I’ve been troubled by this response that I get from good, faithful Christians: “What’s Woodlawn?”
While everyone in the Christian film industry is chasing The Passion of the Christ and the three installments of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series when it comes to success, Christians are turning out in droves to see films like God’s Not Dead, or more recently, War Room. War Room has in fact climbed to #6 in Christian box office tallies with less production or nuance, while a film like Woodlawn languishes in 23 behind behemoths like Jonah the Movie and The Omega Code…
Now, anyone who has read what I’ve written about film over any period of time should know is… I don’t believe all films are created equally. I’m notoriously rougher on Christian films than I am on others because Christian films claim to have a higher purpose, a message. They should be artistically sound. But if we also apply those criteria to films in general, then that means we pay a lot of money – a lot – to see films that are just terrible (Taken 2 or 3, anyone?)
But solely based on Christian films versus Christian films, why aren’t more people going to see Woodlawn? Seriously, the Temple University football team gave the film credit when it went out and beat Penn State the day after screening the film. Woodlawn has an 83% rating on RottenTomatoes.com, unlike some of the films much higher on the list. Where is the Christian audience that should be cheering like mad?
Don’t tell me it’s because it’s a football movie. Both Where the Game Stands Tall and Facing the Giants are higher on the Christian box office list.
Don’t tell me it’s because folks doubt the sincerity of its story. The director/writers are the son of Hank Erwin, who Sean Astin plays in the film.
Don’t tell me it’s because the football might not be good. The lead actor is an actual National Champion cornerback from the University of Alabama, and the directors are former ESPN cameraman.
Don’t tell me it’s because you want more than a sports film. Tony Nathan’s family dynamics and dating relationship, set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, would be intriguing even without football.
So wait, what is the reason the word of mouth isn’t buzzing?
First, I’d propose it’s because just because Tony Nathan, and Tandy Eralds, and everyone else in the movie chooses to follow Jesus – their lives aren’t automatically rainbows and fields of daisies. Just like the story of Don Piper in 90 Minutes in Heaven, faith doesn’t automatically make everything okay. The people involved don’t get what they want just because they pray.
Unlike the prosperity gospel that is flooding American churches insidiously and directly, films like Woodlawn show that there is one way to follow God, but it doesn’t mean that life is easy. It doesn’t always end well, happily, or successfully (by the world’s perspectives). [Read the Bible – check out how things ended for the apostles!]
Second, Woodlawn doesn’t tell you how you individually can follow Jesus because it looks different for everyone. How Coach Eralds follows is different than how Nathan is called to, and the same is true for every last person we meet in the film. Woodlawn doesn’t tell you how to think or make decisions for you. It just proposes that following Jesus means learning to love yourself (and others) better every single day. It shows that following Jesus is hard work, and a process, not a simple solution or equation that you can just plug and play.
Third, Woodlawn doesn’t make Christianity an us versus them scenario. Seriously, the film even shows how on-the-field enemies can become off-the-field friends. Oops! Somewhere along the way, real-life Christianity in Alabama circa 1973 actually showed kingdom Christianity not Christianity-as-defined-by-culture. There goes Woodlawn being all counter cultural… again.
The next time someone bemoans that Hollywood isn’t making true stories about the greatness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, ask them if they saw Woodlawn. It’s the best Christian film I’ve ever seen, and Christians should be running to the theater with their family, their friends, and their neighbors to ask what difference a life of faith makes.
Or they could just ask Tony Nathan. He’d be happy to tell you.