• Cuba
  • Pollack
  • What in the Hell Happened to Debra Winger?


Not Directed by Brian Robbins

"We're gonna get you that Oscar nomination, Big Guy...I promise."

A Masquerade of Mental Illness

In the following essay, I use the term "retarded" to refer to a medically-defined disability. I am aware that new research on environmental factors contributing to mental retardation has created some overlap in the definition of mental retardation as a "disability" or a "disorder," but either way, the term "retarded" is not intended disrespectfully here. I do not claim to be an expert on the subject, but I do have some experience in this area which has prompted me to reject so-called "politically correct" terms like "mentally-challenged," "differently-abled," et cetera. Euphemizing the disability does not change the disability, and though others my use the term derogatorily, that does not make it a derogatory term. It's my belief that excessive euphemism is more condescending and irresponsible than the responsible use of a word in its proper context. Also, Hollywood often confuses "mental retardation" with Down's Syndrome and other afflictions, often resulting in a not-so-hilarious hodgepodge of diseases and disorders (think the chorus of supporters in I Am Sam), so I will use the term "mentally ill"to refer to the this ill-informed character construct to prevent me from having to qualify the statement in every instance. If you're interested in learning more about mental retardation, Down's Syndrome, etc., click here for the Center for Disease Control and National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities' Mental Retardation information page.


The movies would have you believe that getting a bunch of retarded kids together is always a hoot, especially since all they do is frolic in the park, chase balloons, finger paint, and watch "Wheel of Fortune." Certainly there is great joy in working with mentally retarded children and adults, but often it's both physically and emotionally demanding—which is different than saying "unrewarding." It's draining because of the high level of awareness that has to be maintained at all times. One aspect of mental retardation is that the "rules" by which "normal" people conduct themselves are so abstract that they sometimes don't register without immediate stimulus-response reinforcement, if at all. Sometimes they have to be reminded to keep the ball on their own lane, not to lick the paint of their fingers, or that punching other people may not hurt them, but it does hurt others.

The reward in working with the mentally retarded (other than the intrinsic satisfaction of helping others, of course) is partaking in their joy for the little pleasures in life (the ball making it all the way down the lane, a balloon floating through the air, the joyful sense of accomplishment in small tasks). This is what moviemakers attach to when they portray the retarded and/or mentally ill. But what makes working with the mentally retarded difficult is that the high joy accompanying accomplishment can become anger and, sometimes, violence in misunderstanding. Human beings—from Kasparov's frustration at Deep Blue's confounding chess moves to Rainman's scheduling conflict with Wapner—respond hurtfully and sometimes violently to things that we don't understand. At all IQs, fear is bred from an inability to comprehend; when you have a sub-80 IQ, frustration and violence can come suddenly and easily.

Most often Hollywood uses mental retardation as a vehicle through which uptight white people Learn Important Life Lessons. The Uptight White People are so joylessly immersed in the hustle-and-bustle of modern life (think Tom Cruise in Rainman or Michelle Pheiffer in I Am Sam) that they're counterbalanced by the blissful "ignorance" of the mentally ill. This simplistic narrative construct ignores that it's often damn hard to be mentally ill, and it's often damn hard to be around. Movies rarely engage in the meticulous work of showing how the reasoning capabilities of the mentally ill affect decision-making, resulting in exhausting polarities of joy and anger. Movies portray unrealistic angels, mostly—benign spirits who swoop into the lives of the materialistic and show them true meanings. Hollywood must think they're doing a service by glorifying the mentally ill, but liberal guilt disguises the condescension underneath: If the mentally ill aren't portrayed with full-bodied development of character (which means not blaming all their problems on the misunderstandings of bureaucrats and the cold-hearted), then they still aren't being treated as fully human.

Radio suffers the same fate as most Hollywood portraits of the mentally ill. Ed Harris plays Coach Jones, a small town football coach who is such an institution that he goes to the barbershop after games for a cup of coffee (where, apparently, locals go for a late Friday night haircut) to take praise and criticism from the Greek chorus of boosters. Everyday during practice, a young retarded man pushes his shopping cart around the chain-link fence surrounding the field. Coach sees the man and tries to invite him in; the image resembles a man trying to woo a dog from a kennel, with a football substituting for a milkbone. One day the big mean players (who, in the end of course, will come to love Radio) lock him in the equipment shed and throw stuff at him. Coach finds the man, who runs away, again, like a dog whose been poked with a stick. Coach finds and invites the man into the coaches' office, and they all take great amusement in his enjoyment of the radio. Coach likes country, but the kindly black man, of course, loves soul. And so, the nickname Radio.

Well, it's pretty apparent that Uptight Coach lacks soul in his life, and that's what Radio is going to bring him. Coach has neglected his wife (who sits around the house reading The Feminine Mystique) and his daughter, whom he's sealed out of his life like Radio out of the football field. Coach takes such an interest in the retarded man that it comes off a bit queasy—there's being nice and trying to help, but then there's taking him out everyday for pie and hanging out at his house. The reason for this, I guess, is that Coach is a bit of a Hank Hill figure: He pours the love a tough guy withholds from his family into Radio, like Hank pours his love into his truck, dog, and lawn. In fact, we know so little about the family (presumably because the character development would cut into the cutesy antics of Radio) that the average episode of "King of the Hill" has more family crisis.

Coach gives Radio some jobs around the lockeroom, washing towels and the like. This is fine, but for some inexplicable reason Coach decides that Radio needs to be in his classroom too. Something remarkable is going on here: The modern audience, who is used to seeing "those kids" down in their own separate part of the hallway, are now faced with the incongruence of Coach sticking a non-student outsider like Radio (who is not a student) in his classroom—just to have him around. This, my friends, is an aggressive form of mainstreaming that even the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) doesn't accommodate. I admire Coach's determination to get the kids to accept Radio, but he's not a student, and there's tremendous liability here—not to the students, but to the school and to Radio himself. Cynically, the episode is played out by making the Heartless Administrators seem like they're being bullies by asking Radio to leave, but in reality, there just doing they're job—especially since Coach offers no real reason to keep Radio around except "to help him out." Yet, director Mike Tollin manipulates the audience by having the Heartless Administrators justify their heartlessness by branding Radio as some kind of animal that "could hurt the students." None of this answers why Coach insists on having Radio around nearly every waking hour. It's just weird; this relationship is a like a little boy who loves his doggie a whole whole lot, except we're dealing with a retarded man and a tough guy football coach. Finally, the principal says exactly what the audience should be thinking, "I'm not sure we're trying to help someone here, or whether you're using him as a glorified mascot."

That's a good damn question that could be asked of the whole damn movie. If fact, Tollin's direction is so blissfully unaware that the line is almost comical. Sure enough, Radio whoops and hollars up-and-down the sideline, drawing a personal foul from the referee after mimicking Coach's lewd behavior. In fact, after a hard-fought game, Coach gives Radio the gameball rather than one of his players. Why? The gesture comes off as awkward, misplaced, and not just a little weird. Even when Radio costs the team a few games with his sideline enthusiasm, we're supposed to boo the people who wonder why Coach has Radio on the sidelines. (Apparently, Small Town Bankers hate retarded kids). Conversely, we're supposed to cheer every move Coach makes on Radio's behalf, but how can we if the relationship doesn't make any sense—even Coach's wife asks, "Why are you doing this?" Another good question. Perhaps Tollin is trying to offset the "jolly slave" image of the retarded black man happily doing rich white kids' laundry.

Mike Tollin's approach can be summed up in a single scene. Tragedy strikes Radio, so Coach goes to his house. Coach sees destruction: overturned tables, broken windows, ripped pillows, smashed plates, everything. Then he finds Radio sobbing in his room like a frightened puppy. Coach soothes Radio, of course—and then movie just accelerates toward the happy ending. Here is an opportunity for Tollin to create a fuller portrait of the inner life of Radio, but he is unwilling to compromise the angelic vision of the Retarded Black Man Who Brings Truth to White People. Every bad thing that happens to Radio is the result of him being taken advantage of, not because it's difficult for him to get on in the world—except for this scene. Here, we get a glimpse of Radio's inner turmoil, and Tollin politely backs away. This is condescending to the audience because Tollin assumes that we can't handle a less than angelic portrait of the character, and it's condescending to Radio because it dehumanizes him to the audience—that we, like the evil banker, can't accept Radio on his real terms. Had Tollin's producing partner and filmsnobs hero Brian Robbins (Hardball) directed this movie, then he would have blown all this up into something operatic like Varsity Blues (as when the team tears down a statue of the evil coach likes he's Hitler or Hussein), but the less ambitious Tollin settles for creating a mascot. Listen to your principal.

The Pitch:
1 Remember the Titans
1 I Am Sam
2 Radio
See It For:

Radio's ill-fated attempt to get on "Jackass."