Woodlawn – Movie Discussion
I love true stories, and I’m crazy about true sports stories. Fall 2015 there were three good true stories in the theaters, and two of those are about football. (It’s been a great fall for movies!) More than that, each of these movies (Woodlawn, My All American and The 33) have a fairly Christian undertone and make it easy to transition from talks about the movie, to conversations about spiritual matters, but perhaps none more so than Woodlawn, the most evangelistic of the three.
The movie takes place in Birmingham aka “Bombingham” Alabama, deemed the “most thoroughly segregated city in the US … [with] 50 bombings since 1947.” At Woodlawn high school, integration was forced upon the students, bussing in African American students to the previously all white school from an outside neighborhood. The blacks didn’t want to be there any more than the whites wanted them there. No one wanted it, but the question wasn’t whether or not anyone wanted the situation, but rather, given the situation, how were they going to make it work? Administrators were at a loss and doing all they could to simply keep the situation from exploding into something worse.
You may not be much of a sports fan, but it’s hard to deny the power that an athletic team has to make a difference in the culture around them. Sports are a rallying point. They unify people and give them common ground and a common enemy. At Woodlawn, the students were fighting each other, but their football team changed that. When they started winning, the students began to get excited about being a part of Woodlawn. They rallied behind their team and got involved in the battle, not against each other, but against all the other teams. As Coach Geralds said, “Winning fixes everything.” And they were winning largely because of one of their African American players, Tony.
I’m getting a bit ahead of myself though. This isn’t just another Remember the Titans (although that was a fantastic movie!). The question is, how did the team itself overcome their racism and learn to love each other? It was really a domino effect, starting with a man’s attendance at Explo ‘72—a massive Christian conference in Dallas (Billy Graham spoke, attendees were around 100,000). Until that event, Hank had felt his life was insignificant, but he was convinced there that every life had meaning and purpose. When tensions at Woodlawn were at their worst, he convinced the coach to let him speak to the team. Coach Geralds agreed, mostly because he had no other options and figured it couldn’t do any harm.
Hank’s 5 minutes with the team turned into an hour, during which the whole team converted, including the assistant coach. The whole team. Coach Geralds was skeptical. Could a whole team convert? What kind of a difference would it make if they really had? When his team became the only place without racism, the only place without class distinction, the only place where all came together equally to play, to study the Bible, to be friends and brothers…he himself accepted Jesus.
The Woodlawn team shared Jesus with their rival team who also converted (entirely for all we see in the movie) and they had summer practices together, side by side, as friends. Perhaps more impressively, the two coaches (who previously could not stand each other) became impassioned believers and friends.
Even this, however, is not the whole of the story. At the heart of the national story, was a local drama and at the heart of that local drama, there was a young African American football player who got bussed to Woodlawn—that same Tony who was the reason Woodlawn was winning games that I mentioned earlier. At the heart of this story is Tony’s journey to belief. Not just his belief in God, that was easy enough, but his belief in what God could do through him. He knew he had talent, but he was thoroughly convinced that he would never have opportunity to use that talent. His blackness was shaping his perspective, more than his God was. Hank (who had become the unofficial team chaplain) told Tony that he thought God intended him to “be a superstar.” Tony’s immediate response was disbelief. “No such thing. There’s no such thing as a black superstar. Not in this state.” History gave him reason to believe that he’d always be held back, suppressed, unrecognized. But God changes hearts…even the hearts of football coaches and Southerners. Even Tony’s… and that’s where it had to start. He had to begin to believe that God wanted to use him.
The next hurdle he had to face was the consequences of his actions. This was the larger hurdle. When he began to excel there was jealousy and opposition…so much so that his family (including his little brother) was put at risk. Again, he was tempted to hold back. To hide his light under a bush, so to speak. He didn’t want someone to get hurt because of him.
What made that risk worthwhile to him is when he began to see the vision of what God could do through him, and through those risks. It might be costly, but he began to see what the gain could be. Bear Bryant told him, “I saw… a little black boy [playing football with some white boys] wearing #22, his head held high. That’s also because of you.” Tony’s dad told him, “This is bigger than football… Some kind of great power’s been given to you… [Little boys are saying:] If he can do it, so can I!” Toy began to realize that he was a symbol and he gave people hope. His skills were gift, something God was using to change things. Through Tony’s athleticism, he was able to communicate something powerful. Coach Geralds put it this way, “What do you feel but you can’t say? What do you want to say to these people? You say it when you run, Tony. You say it when you run.” (Reminds me of Eric Liddle saying that he felt God’s pleasure on him when he ran.) Instead of thinking of ways to stay out of trouble, to keep his head down and keep the peace, Tony began to think about how his life could make a difference (just as Hank had done).
In many ways, this movie is about the power of an individual submitted to God…just as it’s about the domino effect of our lives. Billy Graham, one man, spoke to and influenced 100,000 men at Explo ’72. Hank, a seemingly insignificant man at Explo ’72 had the courage to then go and speak to a football team. Because of him that team (and then others) accepted Jesus. One of those players, at great risk, dared to become all that God created him to be as a football player and changed the culture of racism in first his town, then his state as he went on to play for Bear Bryant at Alabama …the effect of which rippled into the nation. Now, some forty years later, movies are being made about this story and the impact continues. Astounding. (And this is just the story of ONE man from Explo ’72. Can you imagine if we only knew all the stories from that one weekend?!)
This is only a fraction of some of the “meat” that is in this story. It’s one I would encourage everyone to see, Christian or not. It’s historical. It deals with racism. It deals with our impact on the world around us. It’s a movie about hope. Most importantly, it’s a movie about the power of God to change lives, to change a team, a town, a state, a nation.
Questions for Discussion:
- Does winning fix everything? Why or why not?
- How do people respond when they see wins in a spiritual sense? When they see miracles, or God showing up, prayers being answered, etc.?
- Why do you think a single high school football team could have such an impact? Do you think something like that could realistically happen again? What issues of our time need to be addressed? Do you think any of them could be impacted by a team of some sort in a similar way?
- Hank told the team, “I look at what happened today and I think, aren’t you sick of it? … This thing happens so much it just feels normal? Birmingham has seen hate for so long it’s lost its ability to hope.” Do you relate to that statement? Are there any things in your life that are sick of, but that you’ve gotten so used to that they just feel normal?
- Hank said, “You play for yourself can you be great, but when you play for something higher than yourself, that’s when something amazing happens.” Have you seen this happen in your own life? Do you have anything greater than yourself to fight for/play for?
- Why did Tony struggle to believe God could want him to be a superstar? If someone were to say that to you, what would your response be?
- Tony had a talent for football, but his playing football was “bigger than football.” His dad said, “Some kind of great power’s been given to you… [Little boys are saying:] If he can do it, so can I!” What talents has God given you? Is it possible that whatever your talent is, your pursuing that talent is bigger than that? That there’s more at stake than just your love of singing, or mathematics, or literature, or whatever it may be? That maybe God wants to do something bigger in the world through that talent that you can imagine?
- Tony made his decision to go to Alabama, not because it was the easy choice (it wasn’t!) but because it was where he felt he could make the most difference. Are you facing any decisions right now? If so, how does the question of where or how you can make the most difference affect that decision? Do you ever consider that when making decisions?
- The kids were leading a prayer meeting at the school. A teacher told the principal, “Last week I was an atheist. The kids are leading me.” Do you ever feel too young to make a difference?
 Sidenote – my newly-engaged parents were at Explo ’72. I’ve been hearing about Explo ’72 all my life, so it was particularly interesting to me to see excerpts and hear about the effect it had from another point of view!
 I can’t help but also mention Paul Eshelman here—the wonderful man (and dear friend of our family) who planned and executed Explo ’72. I’m not sure whose brain child it was…certainly Billy Graham was the speaker and the face of the event, but Paul was the man behind it who made it happen.
 Bear Bryant also bears mentioning as an individual whose life had significant impact on racism in the South – for the better. While the governor of the state was declaring he would not have African Americans attending Alabama, Bear Bryant was out recruiting them for his team. He was instrumental in convincing Tony that he should attend AL…because it was time to change things, because he could make a difference.