|'Radio' has too much static|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
I'm all for feeling good ... but not for feeling nauseous. To tell you the God's honest, I didn't know what to make of "Radio" except that it left me with that sweet, funny taste in my mouth that's usually the precursor to vomit.
The acting in "Radio" is also first-rate, particularly the dependable Ed Harris as coach Harold Jones, and Cuba ("He's Everywhere!") Gooding as James Robert Kennedy, the title character. Alfre Woodard, S. Epatha Merkerson and Debra ("Where's She Been") Winger were also believable, or believable enough, far as saying their lines goes, anyway. It's that they were put in an untenable situation by the saccharine and patronizing conceit of the movie.
Solid? Yes. Except for believability of the narrative itself. Without that, without that suspension of disbelief, what you have is a cartoon. Worse, a cartoon that tries to make you weep. And this does. Only in the wrong way.
The unbelievability has nothing to do with if the story is "true." It's based on fact -- the script was developed from a Gary Smith piece in Sports Illustrated, "Somebody to Lean On" -- but rings false. The honesty was massaged to make it more palatable for an audience, not believable to the audience.
In attempting to make the proceedings more antiseptic, less off-putting, the filmmakers lost the verities that would have made it compelling, real, good cinema. Outstanding performances by the actors, and a good visual evocation of prep football action -- but in the service of what, exactly?
In the end, it was inauthentic, this story of a profoundly retarded black boy who is taken in by a grizzled high school football coach in a small backwoods South Carolina town -- which, according to our given time-frame of the early '70s, must be grappling with the facts of integration.
That will suffice perhaps as exterior motivation, but not as a real interior driver. You mean to tell me that coach Jones more or less adopts Radio, to the detriment of his own standing in the community, just because (as he tells us, instead of the director showing us), he had always silently berated himself for "not doing anything"? There were a whole lot worse things to feel bad about during the time coach Jones would've grown up. There were a lot more things he could have done.
To risk his career and his daughter's (played by Sarah Drew) good graces and the good faith of an entire town that regards him as its icon merely for this retarded fellow's comfort -- not his growth, for the conceit has Radio staying in "11th grade" into perpetuity -- it doesn't track. Coach Jones would need more of a different kind of motivation -- a backhoe full of it -- for this to be believable. I found it harder to believe he'd allow the antics Radio painfully, if naively, pulls on the sidelines during games.
If anything, it seems an exercise in cruelty to allow Radio to hurt the team, and himself. Thus, coach Jones seems almost as vacantly cruel as the teenaged athletes. Radio has a brother, according to the movie, who should come to take care of him, or at least agonize about a decision not to, once his mother (Merkerson) dies; we never even see him.
There's an affecting story to be told here with these kinds of characters; they are universal in this way. Nobody is more mesmerized and awed and thrilled by the physicality of high school, college and pro athletics than the handicapped. In their wheelchairs, within their damaged confines, they are often utterly transfixed by the action of the young, quick flesh accomplishing feats that they can only do in their unlimited dreams. I've often thought that's where the handicapped spaces should really be reserved: in the front rows at our sporting events.
There's an actual, real, human reason that I feel this way. I have a cousin named Julius who is one such of those handicapped, who lived for the fate of the old high school football team, in this case the Memphis Melrose Golden Wildcats. I know first-hand the emotions he caused in family, the derision he got from friends, the forgetful, patronizing dismissal from society at large.
Maybe I should stop critiquing and tell it myself?
Maybe you're right. Maybe I will.
But in the meantime, "Radio," for me, will not do. For this one person who knows some of the landscape it traverses, it's unsatisfying at every story turn.
Oh, yes, the movie means well, but it's utterly and profoundly patronizing, and even ignorant. It flies in the face of a simple rule: Give the protagonist (Radio, as title character, is at least a partial protagonist) some positive trait for an audience to cling to, to relate with, else he becomes a cipher. This shows Gooding's Radio as exemplar of Pumpsie Green Syndrome -- not dangerous or anything, deserving of care mostly because he's no threat. He's a mascot, with no interior life. Hate to say it, but in this setup, they do everything but rub his head for luck.
Probably would've been more true if they'd done it.
Ralph Wiley has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC. His many books include "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributes to many ESPN productions, and bats cleanup on a weekly basis for Page 2.