In 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.
In 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.
It 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.
Back 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).
Two 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.
Along 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 doing this?”
Why, 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 knowing Radio.
Less 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.
Frank’s 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.
The 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 town.
More 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.