review by Cynthia
Fuchs, 3 October 2003
Radio, James Robert Kennedy, nicknamed Radio (Cuba Gooding,
Jr.), pulses with the innocence, energy, and, often, the charm of a
child. That is, he is mentally challenged but also indomitable, and
so, in the tradition of mainstream movies of this type (especially
those with the dreaded designation, "based on a true
story"), he has much to "teach" those around him.
That means you.
this case, Radio lives in a small town, Anderson, South Carolina, in
1976. Here he pushes a shopping cart along railroad tracks, filling
it with treasures he finds. One day, the film suggests, he pushes
his cart near the local high school's football practice, where he
attracts the attention of a few of the team's rowdy, supercilious
boys. As Radio is harmless and sweet, they decide to tie him up and
lock him in a shed, whereupon they throw rocks and balls against the
walls to torment him, just to hear hum scream in terror.
happens that the football coach (and math teacher), Harold Jones (Ed
Harris, whose understated performance far outdistances the script),
sees this assault and intervenes, cutting Radio loose so he can run
in a panic across the field, and punishing the boys with extra hours
of drills the next day. Feeling guilty that his boys have behaved so
badly and struck by Radio's apparent interest in the game that he
loves so much, Coach invites the young man to come by the field
again, whereupon he offers him an unpaid job, serving the boys who
have so badly abused him. This will help the boys to be better
people, Coach reasons. He also gives Radio a hamburger and a radio,
because he really likes radios.
home, Mrs. Jones, Linda (Debra Winger, who needs more time on
screen, as she consistently provides welcome respite from the film's
immense corniness), wonders what her husband is up to. This because,
during football season, Harold doesn't make time for his own teenage
daughter, Mary Helen (Sarah Drew), and because the players' parents
start calling to complain about that one afternoon's worth of
drills. "You didn't see the look on this young man's face,
Linda," Coach says by way of explanation. "He was
terrified." Linda appreciates this, because she's a supportive
wife whose appearances are limited to the kitchen, dining room, and
football bleachers, but she infers other reasons for Harold's
investment (avoiding his own family, for instance).
other women also offer perspectives beyond Harold's own. Radio's
hardworking mother, Maggie (S. Epatha Merkerson), is appropriately
suspicious of the white man's intentions regarding her son. A widow
and a nurse, she asks her son whether Coach has done anything to
make him uncomfortable, then, satisfied that James likes his new
mentor, she puts it to Coach that he look out for her son: "He
got himself a good heart," she observes, cautioning Coach not
to exploit it.
the same lines, Principal Daniels (Alfre Woodard) worries that Coach
(or perhaps the kids who have come to like him) is using Radio
"as a glorified mascot," then yields to Coach's passionate
commitment, at least until he invites Radio to come to school, so he
can sit in on classes and be tutored after hours. She's especially
up against it when a school board rep suggests it's unsafe to have
"a severely retarded man" wandering the hallways: it's her
job at stake if something untoward occurs, to Radio or anyone else.
At this point, Daniels just has to ask, "Why on earth are you
indeed. Inspired by a 1996 Sports Illustrated article by Gary
Smith, written by Mike Rich (Finding Forrester), and directed
by Michael Tollin (Summer Catch), Radio spends some
time excavating the reasons for Coach's investment in saving Radio.
As in Finding Forrester or Hardball (which Tollin
produced), the white father-black son relationship is initiated by
the white man's need for redemption. Predictably, Coach's need is
born of his own secret trauma, and predictably, he becomes a
"better person" (coach, teacher, husband, and father) for
predictably, and more troublingly, the film works hard to erase any
semblance of culturally sanctioned or institutionalized racism from
its own project. This is achieved in part by including among Radio's
tormenters a (preemptively cast?) black player who speaks two or
three lines, but more emphatically, by assigning major villainy to
two white characters who remain blithely unaware of their privilege:
the arrogant quarterback and basketball star Johnny (Riley Smith),
and his father, prominent banker and team booster Frank (Chris
Mulkey). During the several post-game, kibbitzy sit-downs that take
place in the local barbershop (all older white men here), Frank
becomes increasingly agitated by Radio's participation in team
activities, and his sideline enthusiasm: "You got yourself a
distraction that needs dealing with," he scolds the coach.
attitude, of course, runs counter to the film's general ethos,
namely, he's a mean and selfish cur who fears that his son's career
is threatened by Coach's attention to and accommodation of Radio.
The film doesn't make a case that Frank sees this threat in terms of
race difference, but even if it is a function of class and handicap
prejudice (the Principal seems the only black character residing on
the white folks' side of the "tracks"), the absence of
even a mention of race is odd, to say the least.
film is punctuated by scenes where Radio's blackness appears
significant, not least being the initial assault; the form it takes
is surely alarming). In still another instance, Radio is
distributing his Christmas presents (received because the white
folks have come to like him so much) to the other poor black folks.
As he pushes his shopping cart from doorstep to doorstep, a newbie
cop in town comes by and imagines the donut-maker and other such
products are stolen, slamming Radio up against his cruiser, cuffing
him, and riding him downtown (as much as the town has a downtown).
Here the rookie is roundly chastised, but the image of that arrest
lingers: just walking around with merchandise in his cart, in his
own neighborhood, Radio looks "guilty" in a small Southern
strangely -- and far more troublingly -- several characters in the
film make mention of Radio's older, "normal" brother
Walter, reportedly away at school. But he never appears, even during
a time of crisis in Radio's household. Perhaps his actual presence
-- a black man with a perspective from outside the town -- would
detract from the white folks' learning curve, being as how he's so
"close" and "normal" and all. And they, the
local men anyway, are on a steep one: even the bighearted Coach has
lived in town all his life, meaning that he doesn't have huge range
of experience beyond its borders. In any event, this crucial
omission allows Coach to play noble guide, while also being guided,
and also allows his fellow citizens to struggle with various levels
of unstated prejudice. How nice for them.
Cuba Gooding Jr.
S. Epatha Merkerson
Joseph E.G. Barrett
PG - Parental
Some material may
not be appropriate