Living in China has its benefits – great food, meeting new unique people almost daily, and easy proximity to other equally interesting Asian countries, to name a few things. But considering I am something of a cinephile, the one big negative is my inability to see new American movies unless they are among the 34 movies chosen by the Chinese censors to be screened here.
This unfortunate situation is compounded by the fact that I write film reviews of a very specific, narrow genre of film – the so-called “faith-based” film genre, and faith-based films never make China’s cut of 34 films (but they could… read here to see how). This means I never get to see the films I like to review until months after everyone has stopped talking about them, which doesn’t give me a lot of capital in the relevance market.
These are an interesting pair of films, and their splash into the culture was also interesting, for similar but opposite reasons. First, War Room, a little, relatively inexpensive film made by the Kendrick brothers (Facing the Giants, Fireproof, Courageous) did what Christian films rarely do, and made a huge return on its initial investment (budget of $3M, current box office $72.1M) even though it scored poorly with critics (34% on Rotten Tomatoes). Then, two months later, Woodlawn, a big football movie by the Erwin brothers (October Baby, Mom’s Night Out) set in early 1970’s Birmingham did something Christian-made films never do, and premiered to several mostly positive secular critical reviews (currently 83% on Rotten Tomatoes with 12 reviews), even as it failed to earn back its budget of $25M.
This intrigued me to no end. Not so much the story of War Room‘s success, as Alex and Stephen Kendrick are the closest thing Christian filmmaking has to a sure thing. The brothers could release a home video of their family playing Twister while dressed like Imperial stormtroopers, and the Big Christian Audience would still turn out in droves.
Actually, I’d probably watch that.
No, I was more interested that an openly Christian-made film replete with overt Christian themes and messages could be received positively by secular film critics, but be relatively ignored by the coveted Big Christian Audience. Especially when one considers that certain vocal members of the Big Christian Audience regularly blast secular critics as being biased against Christian-made films.
So, fickle Big Christian Audience, why didn’t you guys go out and see a film made for you that the critics actually liked? I don’t get you, and I can only imagine the frustration Christian filmmakers feel, trying to figure you out.
But I digress.
I was finally able to watch Woodlawn this past week with my kids, and for the most part, we enjoyed it. I could understand the critical response to the film, with Frank Scheck at The Hollywood Reporter writing that the brothers delivered “a feel-good, real-life inspirational story in a mostly engaging fashion.” And Joe Leydon at Variety, “the overall narrative mix of history lesson, gridiron action and spiritual uplift is effectively and satisfyingly sustained.” Even Tyler Smith – who, as the host of the More Than One Lesson podcast is a Christian reviewer who doesn’t give Christian films an easy pass – wrote that with Woodlawn, the Erwin brothers had “thrown down the gauntlet for the Christian film industry.”
Of course, all the reviews also pointed out that the film was not perfect, and there were some problems (not the least of which was the tiresome “the government is persecuting Christians” subplot), but ultimately the critics judged Woodlawn on its merits as a film. And since the conclusions were mostly positive, I think we can all agree that that is real progress in the arena of faith-based filmmaking.
So kudos to the Erwins for the accomplishment, even if Woodlawn wasn’t the Christian blockbuster you were hoping it would be.
But when I went to write my review of the film, a funny thing happened. Being late to the game was a problem once again. But this time it was because for every critique or compliment I’d think about writing, I’d remember that I’d read that same thought – usually more eloquently expressed – in one of the reviews published last fall, when people were actually writing reviews of the film.
In short, I didn’t have anything new to say about Woodlawn. And I didn’t want to write a review when I didn’t have anything new to say. It was a good lesson for me to avoid reviews until I’ve seen the movie, even if I have to wait a few months. You got that, God’s Not Dead 2? You’ll probably have until the summer before I get around to you, unless you want to send me an advanced screener…
I was walking home from work, about to throw out the idea of writing about Woodlawn altogether, when something hit me. No, it wasn’t a bus or a bicycle, (although that is a real danger here in China) but rather it was a big plot point of the film, and a parallel from the film to the true story of the two sets of filmmaker brothers, the Erwins and the Kendricks. And I knew what I wanted to write about.
That is, unity and the mindset of these Christian filmmakers.
Before I get into that, let me go back to Woodlawn for a moment. You have to remember that this film is based on a true story, and the truth is where it derives most of its power. For example, when Sean Astin’s character shares the Gospel with the entire team, and the entire team responds to his call to choose Jesus, an event like that really happened. When, in the film, the team dedicates their season to Jesus – win or lose – that really happened. When, in the film, Woodlawn’s rival team also hears Hank’s message and chooses Jesus as well, that really happened. When, in the film, the two teams become one in Christ, even as they play each other in the championship game at Legion Field, that event really happened.
It’s really important to remember that while the Erwins had to take some creative licence on certain details for the sake of the film, the large events really happened. And that is powerful. Actually, that’s where the potential power in Christian-made films really lies – not in creating unrealistic Christian fairy tales where we show what we would like to see God do in the world, but films that show the world that God really does “show up,” and when He does, He does some pretty amazing things.
Even in the lives of our Christian filmmakers.
If you think about it, the story of the Erwin brothers and the Kendrick brothers could be the same as Woodlawn‘s pre-faith football teams. Two sets of filmmaking brothers, both trying to help establish Christian filmmaking as something to be taken seriously, both enjoying a reasonable amount of success, both trying to connect with the same broad, fickle demographic.
They could be bitter rivals.
Maybe they should be bitter rivals.
But they’re not.
And this is a testimony to the unifying nature of the Gospel.
Remember the climax of Woodlawn? The big championship match between Woodlawn and Banks, the historic game that brought huge crowds out to Birmingham’s Legion Field in 1974? The interesting thing is that in the film, the game wasn’t noteworthy because of who won or lost the game. It wasn’t noteworthy because it featured two of the best high school players in the nation. It wasn’t even noteworthy because of the record-breaking number of people who came out to see the game.
No, in Woodlawn, the game was noteworthy because of the way the unifying nature of the Gospel brought these two rival teams together. Certainly both teams wanted to win, but the film demonstrated that what really mattered was that both teams were playing in a way that demonstrated the power of God in their lives.
In the same way, of course both the Kendricks and the Erwins wanted their respective films to do well in the box office. In his video essay, “Woodlawn Keynote: This Is Our Time“, Jon Erwin even talked about the need for Christian filmmakers to be thinking in terms of creating blockbusters with explicit Christian themes and messages, and it was obvious that he was hoping for Woodlawn to take off the way that War Room had.
But for reasons only marketing people might be able to definitively figure out, it didn’t happen. The Big Christian Audience that flocked to War Room and even God’s Not Dead largely stayed home when Woodlawn premiered, even though Woodlawn had all of the requisite beats for a faith-based film, was better received critically, and had many of the same Christian film movers and shakers behind it.
But here’s the cool part – days after Woodlawn was released, the Kendricks posted this on their facebook page:
A couple of weeks later, Stephen Kendrick posted this picture on Facebook:
The Kendricks were doing their part to let their audience know that Woodlawn was in their wheelhouse, acting as if the Erwins weren’t the competition, even if they were players on a different team.
Even if their films were competing for that same demographic.
The Kendricks were communicating that there was something bigger going on then winning bragging rights for box office success.
And then, as I researched the Erwins, I found that for every interview that mentioned the success of War Room in general or the Kendricks in particular, the Erwins responded in kind.
For example, in one interview Andy Erwin responded to a question that referenced War Room like this:
[We are] honored by those that have plowed the way like Stephen and Alex Kendrick … and so many others that have worked hard to prove there is an underserved market. Hollywood has taken notice and as one of us wins, we all win as Believers in the industry. War Room has done amazing and we are excited to be up next. God is on the move!
Certainly the argument could be made that these filmmakers don’t have a choice but to put on a publicly supportive face, that the circle of successful Christian filmmakers is so small that they have to get along, that even Hollywood filmmakers act like they get along because you never know who you’ll be working with (or for) in the future.
But for the sake of argument, and because I typically like to think the best of people, I’m going to imagine that this display of unity between the Kendricks and the Erwins is not typical Hollywood flattery and apple polishing. Rather, these men are striving to live Jesus’ call for his followers to be unified (John 17:20-23), for the ultimate goal that the world would know Him.
And their story inspires me, even as I try to live out my faith. This display of unity in the face of a variety of wins and losses (both box office and critical response) inspires me to do my part to seek unity within the family of God where I am. And it makes me ask; do I look at the work of fellow Christians and see competition to be beaten, or do I see their success as my success, and their failure as my failure, because we’re brothers and sisters in Christ on a common mission in life?
And to put an even sharper point on the question for me, do I even see this when I look at the fickle Big Christian Audience, and all of the people who attempt to service that audience with films, with music, with books, even with the Christian kitsch and tschokies?
What about the Christians who hold different political beliefs than me?
What about the Christians who are in different denominations than me?
What about the Christians who are different races than me?
Do I even champion unity with these people, for the sake of the Gospel?
Back to Woodlawn and War Room, neither film is perfect, and to be perfectly frank, neither film is my kind of film. In fact, if I were a “brother” from either family, I would want take these films in much different directions. But while I may not be an Erwin or a Kendrick, I am glad to know that these men are still my brothers in the family of God, and I appreciate that they’ve taught me something important about my faith in the way they live their lives.
In an interview with gospelherald.com about Woodlawn, Jon Erwin said:
Woodlawn is a story about one team making a decision to love God and love each other. What if what we see now began to multiply and what if everyone made the decision to love God and love each other – what difference would that make in America today? If we lived out the sentence that Jesus said 2,000 years ago – “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love each other as yourself.”