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‘Woodlawn’: A dad’s recollections stir movie

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) — Can faith and football heal a racially divided community? Absolutely — according to a movie made by and about Alabamians now showing nationwide.

“Woodlawn,” released in theaters Oct. 16, tells the true-life story of revival and reconciliation at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Ala., following government-mandated desegregation at the school.

Birmingham filmmakers Jon and Andrew Erwin, who shot most of the movie in the city last year, are the sons of Henry Eugene “Hank” Erwin Jr., who served as Woodlawn’s chaplain during the 1973 and 1974 events that sparked the movie.

“Woodlawn is a story of redemption and overcoming through Christ in a very racially charged climate,” Andrew Erwin told The Alabama Baptist. “When we set out to make the movie, we had no clue of the timely relevance. We felt we needed at least another six months to prepare for the film but one of our executive producers and spiritual advisers, pastor Michael Catt [of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga.] told us the time was now. God wanted us to make the film immediately. …

“The second week of filming, [the] Ferguson [unrest] hit the headlines and we realized the importance of the story we were telling,” Andrew Erwin continued. “Not our story but a real story of what God did in the past. Our prayer is that God would move in our country and around the world like that again today.”

The movie depicts the turmoil accompanying the first African American students’ entry into Woodlawn High School. Among the primary characters in the movie are Coach Tandy Gerelds (played by Nic Bishop), a cynical agnostic struggling with a powder keg of anger and violence within the Woodlawn Colonels football team, and African American football player Tony Nathan (played by Jason Castille), who was eventually recruited by legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant (portrayed by Jon Voight) to play for the University of Alabama and then went on to play in the NFL.

Hank Erwin, who later became a state senator, was there when God showed up, accompanying Birmingham evangelist Wales Goebel (now in his 80s), who had been asked to address the players at their fall football camp. (The fictional “Hank” in the movie, who narrates the story, is a combination of both Goebel and Erwin.)

Woodlawn traces the spiritual movement that swept through the football team and eventually united the team members, the school and the community. It is an example of what happens, as one character says, “when God shows up.”

Hank Erwin recounted that Goebel “gave a powerful testimony in the gymnasium and the athletes responded by coming down out of the stands and kneeling around Wales and giving themselves to Jesus Christ as their Savior. Nearly the whole team came down. It was the most powerful thing I’ve seen in my whole life.”

To help the newly converted athletes learn “how to walk the talk,” Hank Erwin became the team’s chaplain and experienced the transformation firsthand.

Bedtime stories come to life

Hank Erwin’s experiences became fodder for bedtime stories for Jon and Andrew when they were children.

“The stories were so colorful and so profound,” Hank Erwin said. “When the boys were real small and wanted a bedtime story, instead of telling them monster stories I told them Woodlawn stories. They’d go to sleep at night with that in their heads and soon they would tell me, ‘Daddy, I’m going to make that into a movie one day.'”

Fast-forward several decades and the bedtime story is now a movie, and at a reported production cost of $25 million, the movie’s production values and explosive sports action should satisfy even secular moviegoers. But Woodlawn is unabashedly a film about faith produced in partnership with Christian movie studio Pure Flix and with Provident Films, which develops, produces and markets faith-based films. The partners are determined to do more than just sell movie tickets. They want the movie to spark another spiritual revival.

“Woodlawn is more than a movie. It’s a movement” — the motto states at the resources page on the movie’s website, which offers both free and for purchase resources (at woodlawnresources.com) for churches, students and individuals. And in an effort to send 1 million students and student-athletes to see the movie free of charge, The Woodlawn Movie Fund (accessible through the woodlawnmovie.com website) has been established with the National Christian Foundation to receive tax-deductible donations.

Through all the attention his sons have received, they aren’t going “Hollywood,” Hank Erwin said.

“I’m mighty proud of them,” he said, “for their skill, for their determination to serve the Lord and for their character.”