'Woodlawn' director hopes to spark second 'Jesus Movement'

by Michael Foust |

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Christian Examiner) – Time Magazine in 1971 labeled it "The Jesus Revolution," and its followers were called "Jesus people" or "Jesus freaks." When 80,000 young adults showed up in Dallas in 1972 to hear Billy Graham preach, Newsweek quickly dubbed the gathering the "Christian Woodstock."

The more popular term is "Jesus Movement," a revival involving youth and young people in the 1960s and 70s that was so significant it caught the attention of mainstream media, which apparently was shocked that a large number of young adults were challenging the sex-and-drugs culture of the day.

The new film "Woodlawn" (PG), which hits theaters this weekend, takes a look at how the Jesus Movement impacted a high school football team in Birmingham, Alabama that was embroiled in fights and divisions between blacks and whites following integration.

Revival broke out within the team, and it ended up impacting the city. It's based on a true story and is directed by the same brothers who made "Mom's Night Out" and "October Baby."

Director Jon Erwin said the Jesus Movement was partially the result of desperation, when young people failed to find fulfillment in temporary pleasures. He senses America is at that moment again, and he hopes the film can help spark another spiritual awakening.

"We've really come full circle, and we really are back in that mode, in that moment of desperation. You have a generation that are searching for answers, and you have a lot of unrest," Erwin said, referencing events in Baltimore, Maryland, and Ferguson, Missouri.

"So I think this is an incredible opportunity to point people to Christ. At the end of the day, I'm just a reporter with Woodlawn," he said.

The Christian Examiner spoke recently with Erwin about the movie. Following is a partial transcript:

Christian Examiner: You made "October Baby" and then "Mom's Night Out." Why "Woodlawn"?

Jon Erwin: I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, where this story takes place. And so my dad was actually the chaplain for the Woodlawn High School football in 1973 – Sean Astin's character in the movie is based in part on his actual story. This was a story that we heard about as kids. I remember the first time I heard the Woodlawn story, my dad shared it with the University of Alabama football team, with their FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athlete's group, and I was just a kid in awe. Gene Stallings was the coach and Jay Barker was the quarterback. I remember hearing the story of this thing that happened and this spiritual awakening, this revival transforming the football team and then the entire school and it leading to the biggest game ever played at Alabama on a high school level. Part of our film career has been to work up to this story.

CE: And it seems to be a timely movie.

Erwin: [Sherwood Baptist Church pastor]Michael Catt last summer, he said, "Jon, I think you need to go make Woodlawn. You need to make it now. America is going to be ready for this." Nobody could have known that Ferguson was going to be happening as we were filming. Literally, scenes we were filming were playing themselves out on television. So much of art is timing. To see us wrestle as a culture and as a nation with some of the same things we wrestled with then [in the 1970s] and to be able to tell this story – that the Gospel and the love of Christ can and did overcome hatred and racism – that's a pretty powerful thing and a pretty universal truth. And it's exciting to see it be so relevant. History does indeed repeat itself. A team making a decision for Christ together can have enormous ripple effects throughout communities and even throughout an entire city. I was at Prestonwood [Baptist Church] near Dallas for a screening a few days ago and there were hundreds of kids that came down ... that flooded the stage to make a decision for Christ. Some individually, but a lot of teams came together.

CE: There aren't many, if any, good movies made about the Jesus Movement. What can Christians learn from that movement and from this movie?

Erwin: As I started going beyond my dad's experiences with the film, and interviewing all of these people, not only did the story meet expectations, it far exceeded them. You start asking, "How in the world did this happen. Is this possible?" You put on your inner cynic and you try to ask, "Is this real?" Not only did it happen in Birmingham, Alabama, but it was happening all over the nation in what was known as the Jesus Movement, which was kind of the last awakening, revival, in our country. I began to study it and fall in love with it. Then I got the [1971] Time Magazine in the mail that had as its cover story: the Jesus Revolution. It was about a 10-page article on something that was so undeniable that it had to get the cover of Time. You read these incredible stories and you realize how our faith has atrophied ... we've lost something really beautiful. And as I began to study it I began to crave it for myself. Man, I would love to see something like this with my own eyes. My generation and anyone younger than me, we've not experienced a great awakening or a revival. The most baptisms ever in the Southern Baptist denomination was (in) 1972. One of my great passions while studying, producing Woodlawn is maybe this could help spark another revival and awakening in America and maybe we could show this generation what it looks like.

CE: The football action is the most realistic football action I've seen in a film. What did you do to set it apart?

Erwin: Working for 10 years for ESPN, and working mainly doing college football – which is the best experience in live television in my opinion – we had never seen a football movie where we would say, "Man, that's it. That's the way it should be done." So many times it doesn't ring true as authentic. We always thought, wouldn't it be cool to do a different take on football, to immerse the person? Kind of to do the "Saving Private Ryan" of football – just put the audience in the game, with the players. And that's what we tried to do. We used a lot of technology to put the audience in the game. That created enormous challenges and enormous visual effects loads. We have an incredible crew and so many people rose to the occasion. We've been dreaming of doing that for a long time.