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'Woodlawn' Will Have You Up on Your Feet, Down on Your Knees

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 16/10/2015 Roma Downey
WOODLAWN © Woodlawn WOODLAWN

There's a powerful scene at the beginning of the new movie "Woodlawn," opening in theaters nationwide Friday, in which the chaplain of a high school football team torn apart by racial tensions asks the entire squad of players if they're tired of the hatred and anger dividing them.

"Aren't you sick of it? Does this kind of thing happen so much that it just feels normal?" he asks. "What would you say if I told you, 100 percent, it doesn't have to be this way? What would you be prepared to do if there was a better way? If there was an answer?"

This sounds like it could be happening in a high school gym today in Ferguson, Mo., or Charleston, S.C., or Baltimore, Md. -- sadly just a few of the U.S. cities that have been recently ravaged by racially tinged violence and riots. But the story of "Woodlawn," while ripped from the headlines, doesn't come from the stories we read on today's smartphones. It comes from the stories we read in early 1970s newspapers.

The movie tells the true life tale of what happened in Birmingham, Ala., in 1973 -- when the city known as "Bombingham" for its racial woes underwent a spiritual revival that started in that gym at Woodlawn High School. Almost the entire football team - more than 40 players -- responded to the challenge presented to them about a better way to live in their uncertain, unsteady times. They answered "yes" to the question posed by the chaplain. They answered "yes" to Jesus.

My husband Mark Burnett and I are honored to be executive producers of Woodlawn because of the clarity and boldness with which it not only presents the Gospel, but also depicts the power of the Gospel.Love and unity replace fear and hatred in the hearts of the team's players, healing the deep wounds of the city in the process. Teammates no longer see themselves as black or white; they see themselves as brothers in Christ. Their goals become about more than winning games; their No. 1 commitment when they take to field is to glorify God.

Mark and I took on this project because we believe, as Christians, the message of "Woodlawn" is one America desperately needs today. God's limitless love in action is, as the film's posters declare, the one hope, one truth and one way to transforming hearts and communities. But we're story-tellers in the entertainment industry, too: The greatest message in the world won't move audiences unless the film that contains it engages and enthralls them. And "Woodlawn" most definitely does that.

Directors Jon and Andy Erwin have created a movie with some of the most exhilarating and revolutionary football action ever seen on the big screen. The acting is across-the-board superb: Sean Astin as Hank, the chaplain whose impassioned words of hope to the team change their lives and their fortunes; Nic Bishop as Coach Tandy Geralds, who is initially skeptical of his players' spiritual conversion but soon embraces it for himself; Oscar-winner Jon Voight, who embodies the charming, focused essence of University of Alabama coaching icon Paul "Bear" Bryant; and newcomer Caleb Castille, who masterfully portrays the two sides of the real-life Tony Nathan, on whose life the film is based -- thoughtful and humble off the field, fearless and electrifying on it.

Caleb, who just recently turned 24, said something during filming that encapsulates precisely why I think "Woodlawn" is such an important film -- one that will have audiences up on their feet cheering, and down on their knees praying.

"My generation needs hope. We need love. We need reconciliation," he said. "This is a huge, entertaining sports film; but it's more than that, too. It puts out the message that our nation needs most right now, which is revival."

May that message, through this remarkable movie, bring a spiritual awakening and with it hope love and reconciliation.

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