Unless you grew up during the mid-sixties-early seventies in the Washington D.C. Metro area, chances are that you may not know of the local radio celebrity, turned comic Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene. Greene was the radio icon that rose to stardom on the mantra of "telling it like it is." A self-professed con and thief, Petey claimed that talking was the only thing he was good at that wasn't a crime. His funeral was attended by reportedly more than 10,000 mourners, the most ever in attendance for a non-elected official.
Greene's rise to popularity is chronicled in the latest film from director Kasi Lemmons, entitled Talk to Me, starring Don Cheadle ( Traffic) in the role of Greene and Chiwetel Ejiofor ( Children of God) as his manager Dewey Hughes. Talk to Me begins with Hughes, program director of a wilting AM radio station, visiting his brother Milo (Mike Epps) in prison, because he promised his mother he would, and because Milo insisted he listen to the in-house DJ Petey Greene. Unimpressed, even after a brief encounter with Greene, Hughes tells Greene to look him up when he gets out, more of a taunt than anything else.
True to form, Greene manages to finagle an early release for himself. (Never underestimate the power of the phrase: "I'm gonna tell your Mama.") He promptly shows up at WOL-AM with girlfriend Vernell (Taraji Henson) in tow, looking for that job that's waiting for him. Needless to say, Hughes is not happy to be called out in front of his boss, Station Manager E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen), and he hustles the loud-talking, potty-mouthed, wild dancin' Black folk out of the radio station as quickly as possible.
Greene on the other hand is not taking no for an answer. Once turned away by Hughes, he spent weeks picketing outside the radio station, rallying support, chanting "Dewey Hughes is in bed with The Man!" When Greene finally does get Hughes in a room – or rather a pool hall - for a heart to heart, Hughes metaphorically hands his balls right back to him, decimating him in a an all-or-nothing challenge of 9-Ball. But Hughes sees something in Greene, and his ambition gets the better of him.
Being the visionary that he was, Hughes convinces Sonderling to take a chance on Greene, and Greene fails miserable. However, after hearing the rumblings of the people in his local bar, Hughes is convinced he needs to try again. Greene and Hughes make a pact when Hughes concludes: "You need me to do the things you're afraid to do. I need you to say the things I'm afraid to say."
Employing drastic measures, Hughes and Greene muscle their way onto the airwaves, and this time, Greene finds his voice with his old jailhouse shout-out, "Wake up dammit!" Thus, the duo gives birth to Hughes' progressive concept of talk radio - Music and talk on the drive in to work - to the people, for the people, by the people.
The rest of the film is the story of Greene and Hughes ascent as the voice of the people, rise of a new comic talented, the public figure with a growing responsibility that comes with having a public platform, and the moment when it all fell apart between them.
Cheadle portraits Greene as a very human man, with fear and nerves and a gift of speaking from his heart and reaching the people. He is the voice of the people and that responsibility is often too much for him to bear, so he escapes by drinking himself into oblivion. Cheadle gives a perfectly measured performance as a man who sees himself as just a guy off the streets of DC, someone who never wanted to be a role model.
Chiwetel Ejiofor also gives a great performance as the other side of the coin to Cheadle's Petey Greene. Ejiofor's Dewey Hughes is ambitious and smart, keeping one foot in the board room and the other in the hood, while constantly negotiating one against the other. As much as it shames him to be a Black man in America where there are so few good examples, he also needs people like Petey and Milo to keep from becoming a complete sell-out. He needs these men in his life to keep it real and to stay in touch with his own Black pride.
I loved Taraji Henson in this film. Henson gives a beautifully layered, honest performance as Vernell Watson, a Black woman that stands by her man. She builds him up when he needs it, she is a partner with whom her man can be vulnerable, she is no-nonsense without emasculating her man or feeling the need to be in charge. Vernell is forgiving and to a point tolerant of Greene's struggle with alcohol and fidelity. She is fun and loving and a beautiful presence on screen. Watching Henson and Cheadle's chemistry onscreen was quite a treat, because we don't get to see Black Love very often.
I love that this film was not a soundtrack movie. So often in films set in the sixties, the nostalgic sounds of Motown are a substitute for creating real emotion of screen. In this film, music was the perfect compliment to the action rather than the driving force. From Sam Cooke's "Change is Gonna Come" to James Brown's "Say it Loud - I'm Black & I'm Proud." the use of pop songs is judicious and appropriate. Kudos to the filmmakers for resisting the temptation (no pun intended).
At its core, Talk to Me is a film about identity. The film tells the story of one man's struggle against who he is and where he came from versus another man's unwavering acceptance of "his place" in the scheme of things, despite how the circumstances might change around him. Greene saw himself as one thing, a Con from the street, just a man. Hughes has patterned his entire life after the Johnny Carson show, his wardrobe, his walk, struggling to be something more than what he is, moreover, something more than his brothers are. Each man looks at the other and sees the example of who he should be and simultaneously, the reality of who he will always be. Should a man stride to be something other than what he is, or should he accept who he is with pride? It's a tough question, particularly for the Black man in American of 1968.
I would look for Makeup and Costumes to be among the list of contenders come Oscar season and Mike Epps delivering a rare dramatic turn as Milo Hughes are other reasons to look for this film when it comes to a theater near you. Or you could just go because its one film this summer that's more than worth the price of admisson.
Talk to Me is currently in limited release.
Genre: Drama & Biopic
Running Time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Distributor: Focus Features
Rated R for Pervasive language, and some sexual content.