BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — A new independent film recounts the faith and unity of a Birmingham high school football team in the years after integration and the movie's co-director said he hopes its message resonates with current students and helps them realize the power of perseverance.
Andrew Erwin, co-director of the film "Woodlawn," was on hand for a special screening for Woodlawn High School students Thursday. Erwin and his brother, Jon Erwin, began producing the film in 2014. Parts of it were shot at the high school and at Legion Field, where a 1974 game between Woodlawn and Banks High School drew more than 40,000 spectators. The turnout was the largest ever for an Alabama high school football game.
The film focuses on the impact religious fellowship had in unifying black and white members of Woodlawn High School's football team in the early 1970s during lingering opposition to integration. The movie also highlights the relationship between coach Tandy Gerelds and Tony Nathan, who went on to play for the University of Alabama and in the NFL. Nathan was among the University of Alabama's first black football players.
"Think about life, think about society, think about the changes in the world," Birmingham Board of Education member Daagye Hendricks told a theater composed almost entirely of black students, teachers and district officials. "Because what you'll see is that a lot of things that happened back in the day really haven't changed much, and it's gonna be you guys and your leadership that's gonna make the change going forward."
"My prayer is, regardless of the demographics now, regardless of how the balance has shifted, you know, the message of what touched this school and this team 40 years ago still plays today," Erwin said. "I hope it inspires people to know that one person can make a difference and one person can make change."
Erwin later added that shortly after production began on "Woodlawn," riots erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting death of a black man by a white police officer. He said it made the film's messages of faith and unity even more timely.
"Right after that, the Eric Garner video came out," Erwin said, referring to an unarmed black man who died in New York after being put in a white police officer's chokehold.
"Right after that, you know, Baltimore, Charleston and all of a sudden things I didn't know were as pressing an issue exploded again and I feel like it became very current."
Widespread unrest broke out in Baltimore in April following the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died of injuries received while in police custody. In June, a white man fatally shot nine black parishioners during a bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, in what authorities are calling a hate crime.
"Woodlawn" is Erwin's third film and he said it's the most personal story he's told thus far. The team's chaplain, played by actor Sean Astin, is based on Erwin's father, who introduced Erwin to the Nathan and Gerelds families. Former Crimson Tide defensive back Caleb Castille portrays Nathan and Academy Award winner Jon Voight portrays Alabama's legendary football coach Bear Bryant.
"I knew if I didn't cast Bear Bryant right I would have to move to another state," Erwin said before the screening.
Woodlawn senior Shekelah Weatherspoon said she found the film inspiring and that it makes her look at her school and neighborhood in a different light.
"I didn't know the history of Woodlawn and I didn't know that that story happened in our community because nobody speaks about it anymore," Weatherspoon said. "I think that change will come and one day Woodlawn will be a community that everybody will be proud of."