History has always provided a wonderful tapestry of opportunity for Hollywood. 2015 has already brought history-inspired films such as Bridge of Spies, a Cold War thriller starring Tom Hanks. Straight Outta of Compton, the story about the emergence of one of the most influential rap groups of all time, NWA. Black Mass, chronicles the life and capture of mobster Whitey Bulger after 16 years on the lam. Just this week Steve Jobs was released." In the coming days, The 33 about the Chilean mine disaster, and Suffragette, a story about the foot soldiers of the feminist movement who helped secure the right to vote in Great Britain, and influenced the same charge for the franchise in the United States, will be released.
Back in September I wrote a post here at HP entitled "The Mystery of Rosenwald", a blog about the film Rosenwald and the story of Julius Rosenwald, a man, who arguably has done more for black American's in the South, than anyone in history. The film was released without the fanfare of the big studio-backed projects mentioned above, but its significance should not be lost on any of us.
Well, I've managed to find another film that received so little fanfare; I've yet to see a trailer air in the Las Vegas television market. As someone who worked in Hollywood for over two decades; movie watching is more than a hobby of mine, it's an obsession. Feel free to call me a film addict. I'll watch anything at anytime. I average 10 new releases a month.
I scoured the Internet looking for a film I hadn't seen when I stumbled across Woodlawn. The film is based on the true story of Tony Nathan, played by acting neophyte Caleb Castille. Nathan was a gifted African American high school football player, who in 1973, was bused, along with other black students in the name of school integration to Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama.
This story was personal to me, as I was a product of "forced busing" starting in 1970, when we arrived in Panama City, Florida for my 7th grade school year. At the time, I'd never lived down South. Nothing about the South, and the hatred of black Americans made sense to me. I'd spent my early school years living in Madrid, Spain thanks to my dad's military career. The people of Spain didn't harbor the harsh racial animus of America. Living in Spain was a respite from the Civil Rights Movement. My age, and the fact news traveled slowly back then (no Internet, or satellite television) sheltered me from the harsh realities of life in black America like no place on earth.
My baptism in black America started at age 12. You can read more about my story in my new book 7-10 Split: My Journey As America's Whitest Black Kid. You can get it through my website www.michaelgordonbennett.com or on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
When I arrived in Panama City, I didn't realize many college football teams down South had never been integrated, including the University of Alabama. One of the most famous college football games in history occurred less than a month after my arrival in the Florida panhandle, when the all-white Crimson Tide, took on the fully integrated University of Southern California Trojans on September 12, 1970 at Legion Field in Birmingham. At that's how Woodlawn opens.
For a little perspective, other than Florida State University in nearby Tallahassee, U of A was one of the closest major universities to Panama City, a mere 270 miles away. Led by legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant (Jon Voight), Alabama was a national college football powerhouse. As a result, many of the young kids in my school, black and white, pulled for Alabama, even without black players. It would be years before I learned the University of Alabama football team was still segregated at the time, causing me more than a few sleepless nights at my own ignorance.
Cross burnings and riots erupted in Birmingham as a result of the court-mandated busing order. To be fair, Birmingham wasn't the only city in America that suffered through riots as a result of busing, but it was certainly the most notorious because of its segregationist history.
Woodlawn High School football coach, Tandy Gerelds, (Nic Bishop) struggled to ease the racial tensions of his team, when he reluctantly agreed to allow an outsider to address his squad. That outsider, Hank Erwin (Sean Astin), provided the spiritual guidance and message of hope he learned through his own experience at a Christian revival years earlier, telling the players a "better way" is possible through Jesus. After a little encouragement from Erwin, nearly the entire team, black and white, together, gave their lives to Jesus and changed the culture of an entire community.
It's a good story, well written and acted beautifully. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry still hasn't found its' voice when it comes to themes that deal with America's racial past, hence the lack of a larger promotion, despite being released on over 1,500 screens according to Box Office Mojo.
This film has a little something for everyone---spiritual awareness, history, teamwork, and what's possible if the humanity that exists in all of us is allowed to shine.
To learn more about this author, go to his website www.michaelgordonbennett.com