The 2003 film Radio is based on the true story of T. L. Hanna High School football coach Harold Jones (played by Ed Harris) and an intellectually disabled young man, James Robert “Radio” Kennedy (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.)
By Nils Skudra
Recently I had the opportunity to watch the film Radio, a heartwarming 2003 biographical film about James Robert “Radio” Kennedy, a mentally handicapped African American man who won the heart of the head football coach in Anderson, South Carolina, and helped to inspire the football high school team to become champions. I felt that this film would make a worthwhile topic for a review since it portrays how a man with a mental disability not only overcame adversity to gain acceptance but played an inspirational role in the lives of those around him.
The film opens with “Radio” (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) pushing a shopping cart along the railroad tracks and listening to a radio that he has collected along with other discarded items. As he strolls through downtown Anderson, people anxiously avoid “Radio” since they assume that he is a homeless person, and he is yelled at when he nearly collides with an angry driver in the street. He comes upon a football field where Head Coach Harold Jones (Ed Harris) is training the Hanna Jackets, the local high school team. Jones takes notice of “Radio,” seeing that he is intrigued by the team’s practice sessions, but it is unclear as to what “Radio” wants since he is unresponsive and walks away.
One day, during a practice session, “Radio” attracts the attention of the team members when their football falls out of bounds and lands by his cart. One of the players harasses “Radio,” telling him to throw the ball back to them and asking if he is deaf, but “Radio” simply places the ball in his cart and continues strolling on. The next day, Coach Jones arrives to find the team members throwing a ball against the door of the gear shed, and upon entering he discovers a terrified ‘Radio’ tied up and crying. He immediately frees “Radio,” who runs away in panic, and Jones punishes the team by announcing that they will have an extra-long practice session.
As the film delves into the private life of Coach Jones, we learn that while he enjoys some celebrity in the town as the Head Coach, his career has placed some strain on his family since he does not spend enough time with his daughter Mary Helen, who is struggling in school. Jones’ wife Linda (Debra Winger) emphatically tells him that he should pay more attention to his family since it is only two years until Mary Helen graduates from high school and leaves for college. At the same time, the Jackets have been on a losing streak, and consequently he is under pressure to turn the team’s record around.
When Coach Jones encounters “Radio” again, he offers him some water and invites him to eat in the office. He observes that “Radio” takes a liking to the assistant coach’s radio and allows him to take it home as a gift. “Radio” is not very communicative, answering in short sentences and always maintaining a distant expression. Upon meeting his mother Maggie Kennedy (S. Epatha Merkerson), it is revealed that the doctors did not have an exact label for her son’s disability, as she explains that they said he “thought like everyone else, only slower.” This indicates that “Radio” struggles with an intellectual disability and does not process information as quickly as other people, but Coach Jones is keen on helping him and secures Maggie’s permission to let “Radio” become an assistant for the team.
As Coach Jones’ assistant, “Radio” takes part in training the team during practice sessions but is frequently bullied in the form of tackling or having the ball thrown at him when it is passed to another player. In spite of this, he becomes a highly visible figure at football games, inciting the team, shouting encouragement to the players and even taking part in the cheerleading. Inspired by “Radio,” the team increasingly improves its performance record, and most of the players come to accept him. However, Coach Jones encounters dissent from Principal Daniels (Alfre Woodard), who expresses concern about whether they are genuinely trying to help “Radio” or merely turn him into a “prized mascot,” and from local businessman Frank Clay, who considers “Radio” a distraction from his own son Johnny’s performance on the team.
Ms. Daniel’s misgivings about Coach Jones’ intentions are highly relevant sentiments in today’s atmosphere since some might consider it tokenizing to give a special needs individual a position of prominence simply on account of their disability. Since the ultimate goal of hiring special needs individuals is to facilitate their successful integration into the workforce, proponents of this view would argue that the focus should be on equipping them with the academic and professional skills that they need in order to achieve that goal. In contemporary times, there has been an increasing trend toward recruiting individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities for employment. Reasons for this trend not only include the representation of diversity, but also employers’ recognition of the unique skills that individuals with autism can bring to their jobs. Having worked at two local businesses in Greensboro that specifically recruited individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities, I can attest from my own experience that their purposes were not to tokenize these employees but in fact to provide them with the training necessary for future long-term employment.
Coach Jones not only recruits “Radio” as his assistant for the team, but he also enrolls “Radio” in classes at the high school so that he can complete his formal education. However, when Johnny goads “Radio” into entering the girls’ locker room, Coach Jones and Principal Daniels face increased pressure from the school board to have “Radio” removed for his alleged disorderly behavior. In addition, Coach Jones’ relationship with his daughter deteriorates further because of the special attention that he gives to “Radio.” A pivotal turning point takes place in the aftermath of the death of “Radio’s” mother, when Frank convenes a meeting in the local barbershop to discuss “Radio’s” removal from the school. Coach Jones arrives and delivers a moving address on what “Radio” has meant to him and to the community:
… [T]he truth is, we’re not the one been teachin’ Radio, Radio’s the one been teachin’ us – ’cause the way he treats us all the time is the way we wish we treated each other even part of the time.
This statement is a shining reflection upon the impact that “Radio” has had on those around him. He has not only faced adversity and struggled to gain acceptance, but the unconditional love that he shows toward other people – even those who have previously mistreated him – has transformed their outlook and made them more empathetic toward “Radio.” In addition, through his friendship with “Radio,” Coach Jones has developed a recognition of the importance of maintaining a close bond with his family, and therefore he announces that he will resign his position as Head Coach. This speech motivates the assembled community members to decide in favor of keeping “Radio” enrolled in school.
Overall, Radio is a powerful biopic characterized by superb performances and a moving storyline. Gooding, Jr. captures the character of “Radio” very convincingly, conveying both his vulnerability and his innocent charm. Ed Harris delivers a brilliant and subtle performance as Coach Jones, capturing his sense of dignity and ability to strike at people’s thoughts without openly naming them – this is illustrated by his choice of words in punishing the team for their mistreatment of “Radio” and in his speech at the barbershop, as it hints at the underlying racism and ableism that motivates some of the community members’ antagonism toward “Radio.”
Furthermore, the film delivers a compelling message about the effect that an intellectually disabled man had on the attitudes of the community – in a special feature on the DVD, one of the crew members observes that generations of Anderson residents have grown up fully comfortable with and embracing of “Radio’s” presence, which is truly a profound impact since mainstream society places a strong stigma on individuals with disabilities. This motivational message will hopefully inspire viewers to examine their outlook toward disabilities and recognize the true potential that individuals like “Radio” can have for transforming people’s minds.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I’m now working on a secondary Master’s in Library Science. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.