In honor of another football season in the Deep South, this month’s Southern Movie has to be the feel-good film of 2003: Radio. Based on a true story from Anderson, South Carolina, the movie stars Cuba Gooding, Jr. as a mentally challenged black man who loves small portable radios and Ed Harris as the white high school football coach who embraces the cause of this major underdog. To put it bluntly, Radio is basically a tear-jerker for dudes.
The film opens with the title character pushing his grocery cart along the railroad tracks, and he has to step aside as a train comes. It is 1976 in small-town South Carolina, so that’s normal enough. He then heads to the two-lane highway where he manages a joyride down the hill in his cart. As the man we will soon call Radio moves into town and along a fence, he sees football practice and stops to gander. We already know that this ambling, awkward man is not like the rest of us. And when he takes a football that has been kicked over the fence, despite the protestations of a player, the groundwork is lain for a change in fortunes.
It is late summer, and football season will start soon. Coach Jones is hard at work, watching film and drawing up plays, but his wife has to take a moment to give him a mild scolding about how he is neglecting his teenager daughter, who is entering her junior year. The busy coach can’t be bothered though, not with such trivial things.
The next time we see the team, practice has ended. Coach Jones notices Radio’s grocery cart sitting all by itself, and then a few boys catch his eye, horsing around outside the equipment shed. This odd circumstance requires that he go and check it out. As the boys proclaim shyly that nothing is going on, a rumbling in the shed says otherwise. Coach Jones and his assistant, Coach Honeycutt, find the mentally challenged man, tied up with athletic tape, quaking and sobbing in fear. Coach Jones cuts him loose, and the man runs for his life. The boys get off with a brief moralistic admonition, and the coach heads home to ponder their fate. (In typical coach fashion, his answer is to run the hell out of the them.)
From here, the plot builds around Coach Jones and his efforts to help the man they will call Radio. Despite the confusion of the whole community, including the gossipy men at the local barbershop and Radio’s mother who works long shifts at the local hospital, Coach Jones makes baby steps toward bringing Radio into the fold. First, the coach brings him in to help with practice and buys him a Whopper. Then, he gives him a ride home. Slowly, slowly, the quiet, fearful man opens up, as do the skeptical townspeople— except for the snide small-town banker, Frank Clay, who will be our villain.
Frank Clay’s beef with Coach Jones, though, is not about the coach or about Radio. His son is the star athlete of the town. Johnny Clay leads both the football team and the basketball team– and only winning will do, especially Clemson is considering him for a scholarship. Frank Clay and his son want championships. Yet, it is Johnny, with all of his vainglorious arrogance, who instigates the harassment of Radio. It was Johnny who put him in the shed, and it is Johnny who will trick him into going in the girls’ locker room during shower time. So it is Coach Jones who takes action against Johnny.
However, Frank Clay and his son are not Coach Jones only obstacles. The coach loses some support when Radio calls out to the opposing team about a super-secret reverse play, and even he knows that a five-and-five season is not OK with any of the people in town. Coach Jones also crosses a line when begins to bring Radio into the building during classes: a major safety concern says his principal and a major legal liability says the squirrelly bureaucrat from the school board. But Coach Jones knows that what he is doing is right . . . so sure that he sets up Coach Honeycutt to take Radio as an assistant with the basketball team after football season is over.
As we see the unlikely duo of Coach Jones and Radio ascend, drawing in more and more supporters, Radio suffers tragedy. First, as Radio is going house to house on Christmas day, giving away the many present he was given, the town’s new young cop arrests him and takes him to jail! The other officers quickly recognize him and call Coach Jones. That crisis is averted. But then his hard-working mother dies of a heart attack. Radio is devastated, and now Coach Jones’ must take on an even greater role in Radio’s life.
As Radio comes to close, all is put right in Anderson, South Carolina. Despite Johnny Clay’s mean tricks, he realizes that Radio is a true friend to the whole town and befriends the timid man at last. Though, his father is not so thoroughly redeemed. When Frank organizes an informal town hall meeting at the barbershop to discuss ridding the town of Radio’s deleterious influence, Coach Jones crashes the party. He tells the small gathering. who weren’t expecting him to be there, that he has gotten his priorities straight, that Radio has taught him more than he ever taught Radio, and that he will resign as head football coach.
However, his resignation must not have lasted long. In closing, Radio shows us the real people behind this fictional portrayal. We meet the real Radio, whose name is James Robert Kennedy, and the real Coach Jones, who both enjoyed a long and storied career in TL Hanna High School.
As a document of the South, Radio gives a glimpse into the importance of high school sports – and in particular, high school coaches – in our small towns. In these isolated places, where few opportunities exist, the possibility of a championship team is a great reason to have hope for the future generations. We haven’t won at anything yet . . . but we might! Maybe this year . . . maybe these boys . . .
And of the man, Radio, we see an underdog story. In The Air Conditioned Nightmare, Henry Miller wrote that the South was the last place in America where people were interesting. That’s because we don’t isolate or ostracize those people who don’t fit in. We let them walk among us in day-to-day life, and even though we may be cruel at times to our outsiders and freaks, we never refuse them the right to come out and participate like everyone else. As nuanced and complicated as that may be, there is truth in the story of Radio: even a mentally retarded man with the mind of child can become one small town’s most beloved eleventh grader.
*The Southern Movie of the Month posts will resume in January 2017. There will be no Southern Movie posts during October, November, and December.