Radio is a film I approached with a lot of skepticism.
Based on a true story about a mentally challenged man who inspires a South Carolina high school football team in the 1950s, I wondered if the polished, articulate Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry McGuire, Men of Honor) could disappear into the almost non-verbal, low-IQ persona of James Robert Kennedy, a.k.a. “Radio.”
Having a family member who is mentally challenged, these kinds of movies are always difficult for me to watch, and I tend to think that the actors involved just haven’t put enough effort into understanding the disability.
But this time, it was different. Gooding’s portrayal of Radio is alternately poignant, heartbreaking and even humorous. It was a difficult, unglamorous role, and he took it very seriously. In our recent interview in New York City, where Gooding was promoting the film, he discussed the challenges of preparing for the role, having not met Radio face to face.
“It worked out that I didn¹t meet him until three weeks into filming,” Gooding said. “I had to create my impression of him based on a lot of tapes, and stories from people who knew him. When we started filming down in Walterboro, South Carolina, I stayed in Charleston, and I ran into a lot of people who actually knew Radio and had stories to tell. That helped me a great deal.”
Director Mike Tollin (Varsity Blues, Summer Catch), did an expert job of creating a heart-felt family film that embodies everything we love about Autumn: turning leaves and bonfires, football games and marching bands, crisp evenings and high school dances. But this milieu is just a backdrop for a bigger theme, a sort of modernized Good Samaritan story with Coach Harold Jones, played brilliantly by Ed Harris, providing the heart beat. He is compelled to reach out to an outcast in the community, even when faced with opposition, driven by a missed opportunity in his youth he always regretted.
“A lot of times people judge others based on their ignorance,” Gooding said. “They don’t understand why a person is a certain way and there is a fear of interacting with them. Once you experience or come into contact with someone with a disability and you realize that their spirit is just like yours, it makes it easier to interact with them. We’re all connected spiritually, and to ignore that connection is only going to ultimately draw you to that person eventually.”
The talented supporting cast includes Alfre Woodard as the school principal, S. Epatha Merkerson as Radio’s mother, Debra Winger as the coach’s wife and newcomer Sarah Drew as the coach’s daughter.
After the press screening, I had the chance to talk about the film with some fellow movie writers and it seemed everybody remembered having a “Radio” in
their hometown growing up, somebody who was a little bit different, in need of a friend. The same is true today. There is someone in every community who
is ostracized for one reason or another. We have the choice to make a difference in their life, or walk on by. I hope after seeing this movie that people will follow the coach¹s example, and realize there it is never too late to do the right thing.
The film comes out Oct. 24
Joan Brasher is a freelance film critic in Nashville Tennessee.
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