by Kung Fu Zu 4/6/14
Radio is a 2003 film about how the loving kindness of one individual can create a wonderful new world for another. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays the title character, Radio, a mentally handicapped young black man who wanders the streets of a late 1960’s or early 1970’s South Carolina town with an old grocery cart containing his various belongings. Among these are different radios, for which he has a fascination.
The film begins with Radio pushing his cart along the fence line of T.L. Hanna high school during football practice. A football flies over the fence and Radio picks it up, putting it in his shopping cart. A football player, the star running back Clay, tells Radio to throw it back over the fence, but Radio, in his own world, does not notice and moves down the sidewalk with his cart.
Shortly thereafter, the coach, played by Ed Harris, finds Clay and eight other football players fooling around banging on the walls of the equipment room. He enters the hut and finds Radio cowering in a corner bound by athletic tape. The coach cuts the tape, trying to soothe Radio while doing so. He takes Radio home to his widowed mother, who does her best to take care of Radio, but is clearly overworked and could use help.[pullquote]…coach’s daughter, who feels somewhat neglected, says he’s got the whole town feeling sorry for Radio, and coach responds that Radio doesn’t need people feeling sorry for him, he needs people to try and understand him.[/pullquote]
Coach decides to take Radio under his wing and starts by letting Radio stay around the football field during practice. During this time, Radio watches the students as they play and interact with each other. He also gets to do such things as pick up balls and bring them back to the field. Coach later allows Radio to sit in on classes, and generally follows the coach around the school. The viewer sees Radio blossom from a shy solitary man, who could barely speak at the beginning of the film, to a happy outgoing chatterbox who has found a place in the world.
Of course, this does not happen without difficulties. The school’s black female principal is, understandably, concerned about having a “severely, mentally retarding black man” in her high school, but she trusts coach and gives him room to maneuver. The local school board sends in a stereotypical bureaucrat who is in favor of getting Radio into an institute of some kind.
Finally, and most seriously, there is the underlying resentment Clay feels for Radio. This surfaces when Clay and a couple of other athletes approach Radio, while he is folding towels in the boys locker room after school. Clay tells Radio that the female athletics teacher has asked for him to come over to the girls’ locker room to pick up something. Radio is hesitant to do this as it is not in his routine. But Clay assures him, there is no problem as the girls have already left. Radio walks over and enters the female locker room and, of course, it is full of girls who react as one would expect. Poor Radio, mortified and confused, runs out in a panic.
This incident gets back to the principal who tells coach that she realizes Radio was hoodwinked and while there was no ill intent in his actions, she is concerned that he might do something worse simply because someone tells him to do it. Coach assures her that he will keep a closer eye on Radio and a crisis is avoided. The film proceeds with different scenes showing some of the ups and downs which are part of a mentally handicapped person’s existence.
The film’s climax comes when Clay’s banker father calls various townspeople, including the principal, to a meeting kept secret from coach. The banker intends to convince everyone of the need to have Radio removed from the school, because he is a distraction and hurting Hanna’s athletics’ department. (Not to mention the fact that coach has come down hard on Clay for the way he has treated Radio.) The meeting is held in the local barbershop, which is the spot where people gather after each home game of the season.
Coach gets wind of the meeting and drops in with his wife and daughter. He makes clear that he knows what the meeting is about and understands there might be concern for next year’s football team. He tells them how football is a game which he has loved all his life and is something he looks forward to every year. But, he says, years back his daddy told him to focus on what is important and put the rest to the side. Then he says “Radio is more important than football.” Therefore, he will retire from coaching. This stuns the crowd to silence and the coach and his family leave the barbershop. Once they have left, everyone there starts giving Clay’s father the hell which he so richly deserves.
The final scene starts with band music blaring and a full screen displaying a Hanna High School Yellow Jackets banner, about the size of a billboard, stretched across an end zone. Suddenly a middle aged black man bursts through the banner, followed by young football players in full padding. This is the real Radio who, almost thirty years later, is still connected with the school. He and Coach are still close and the viewer can be sure they will remain so, until one or the other shuffles off this mortal coil.
I found Radio to be a wonderful movie. It is especially touching as it is based on a true story. The chemistry between Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ed Harris was excellent. Gooding’s portrayal was believable and touching. Harris as the stern, laconic, yet deeply moral Coach was even better. I read somewhere that Gooding won a Golden Raspberry Award for his role. This makes me wonder whether or not those who voted him this award have had any contact with the mentally handicapped; probably not. I suspect they are generally great advocates for the mentally handicapped as long as the unfortunates don’t appear to be afflicted. Reality can be uncomfortable.
There as many small moments and mannerisms in the movie which ring true as regards the handicapped. For example, the first time Radio walks by the high school field after being tied up, he is hesitant to accept coach’s invitation to come into the gym until coach mentions that they have some good hamburgers inside. Upon hearing this, Radio decides to follow. Another instance is when coach and Radio are sitting on the bleachers talking, and Radio reaches up to straighten out coach’s coat collar which is askew.
Perhaps most importantly, when loading their pickup with Christmas presents for Radio, coach’s daughter, who feels somewhat neglected, says he’s got the whole town feeling sorry for Radio, and coach responds that Radio doesn’t need people feeling sorry for him, he needs people to try and understand him. How true. Coach knows, although others may not understand it, that Radio has feelings and desires like normal people. Finally, I liked the subtle way the movie shows how a handicapped person learns little by little, but still learns, especially if treated with patience and love.
Radio is a good representation of a part of life that most people neither understand nor wish to be confronted with. It shows, in a powerful way, how individuals can make a positive difference in others’ lives. To my mind, coach showed true love by his actions. He took it upon himself to get involved and, through his involvement, got others to help.
And coach’s involvement did not come for free. He did not simply mouth platitudes about love and the like. It was his active participation, which cost him time and emotion and hurt him professionally, that made the difference. But he still decided it was worth the effort. During his talk in the barbershop, coach mentions how much Radio has learned during the short time he has been part of their lives, but he then points out how much more Radio had taught him and many others who were lucky enough to be around him.
There have been a number of posts about love recently and while I don’t know enough to definitely say much about God and theology, I think I can say coach shows us what true love is. It is not an abstract catch-all with which we can define existence. Love in the abstract is pretty useless. If good is to come out of love, action must follow it. Coach is patient and kind. He is not boastful or selfish. For love of Radio, he faces every problem which arises. For the love of Radio, he endures and stands for truth. Talking about love is always easy and sometimes cheap. Acting upon it can be difficult.
So my suggestion, to those truly concerned with the nature of God, is to get out and shower your unselfish love upon those who need it, which means virtually everyone. Airy speculations about that which is not knowable are fine and good, but if you wish to bring Love into the world then you must go out and spread it. Watching the movie, Radio, might be a good place to start. After seeing it, you may gain some ideas as to how you might “made a difference.” Not by theoretically trying to change “the world.” Rather, by going out and helping someone in a concrete, material way. Individual active kindness is a powerful thing. And I suspect that practicing it will help anyone get closer to God’s nature than by merely writing about it.