Petey Greene (Don Cheadle) gets ready to go on the air at WOL in Washington, D.C. © Focus Features Everyone knows how generations of resentment and pent up rage burst open across America on the night that Martin Luther King was murdered. Those of us alive at the time recall our horror, dismay and fear as cities burst into flames. Many will remember the pleas for calm from black political leaders, sports figures and entertainers. Fewer will recall a Washington, D.C., radio host, himself an angry black man renowned for his street talk and open hostility to the entrenched power structure, taking to the airwaves for a long night of urging fellow African Americans to stay home and out of harm's way, to find the grace to express their sorrow in productive ways rather than in violence. I do remember hearing of that individual, but I don't think I ever knew his name: Petey Greene, or that when he died more than 10,000 people attended his funeral. Director Kasi Lemmons' Talk to Me stars the incredibly versatile Don Cheadle in Petey Greene's story, and whatever you remember or have heard of the '60s, this is a story you want to know.
Written by Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa, Talk to Me details the unlikely relationship between two very different men. As the picture opens, Petey is in prison where he's the resident DJ on the institutional radio station. Near the end of his incarceration, Petey meets Dewey Hewes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a rising executive at Washington's WOL Radio, the capital's leading R&B station. The two men both grew up in the D.C. ghetto, but they have responded to their impoverished childhoods in radically different ways. Petey is a thief and a con man. Dewey is a corporate comer, a master navigator of the established business world. Petey is fast-talking, profane and flashy. Dewey is reserved, soft-spoken and buttoned-down.
When they first meet, Petey asks for a job when he gets out, and Dewey responds nonchalantly in the affirmative. If Dewey takes Petey at all seriously in this jailhouse meeting, and it's not clear he does, Dewey certainly hasn't got an on-air job for Petey in mind. Janitor, maybe, courier perhaps. But once he's out, Petey keeps hounding Dewey for a DJ slot, and when WOL's numbers slip, Dewey decides to give Petey his shot, an opportunity extended and accepted that neither man will live to regret, even though station owner E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen) nearly has a coronary once Petey begins to light up the airwaves with his shoot from the lip "straight street talk."
I found myself struggling to suspend my disbelief in the scene where Dewey barricades out his station's technicians so he can get Petey on the air. Dewey's flagrant act of insubordination is entirely uncharacteristic, and Sonderling is reduced to a buffoon when he first calls in guards and then reverses himself with the clumsiness of Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. This is the only false narrative note in the film, however, and even this passage has great comic energy. Most everything else rings first with hilarity and ultimately with truth.
As brought to electric life by Cheadle, who confirms his position in the very first rank of cinematic performers, the Petey Greene we come to know here is a genius in the tradition of Richard Pryor. He's uneducated, but he's brilliant and rippingly funny. He's got a smart-aleck take on most every aspect of contemporary life, but just like Pryor, he transcends comedy. He's a canny analyst of the social, economic and political world of his time even if he expresses himself in the patois of the barroom. However inevitably funny he is, he's deadly serious, and once his show catches on with the black D.C. audience, his listeners eagerly await his commentary on every issue. People believe Greene, they trust him, and thus he's able, in the explosive darkness after Dr. King's death, to exercise critical influence in the cause of restraint.
Like Pryor, though, Petey harbors a surprising lack of self-confidence. For all his apparent brashness, he's full of fear. His girlfriend Vernell (the terrific Taraji P. Henson) understands this, but for a long time, Dewey, who is in awe of Petey's talent, doesn't, and that leads to miscalculation and heartache in the film's last third. Dewey thinks Petey can achieve stardom to rival Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory, and the evidence here is that he might have, but Dewey pushes harder and faster than Petey can handle.
Talk to Me will make you laugh. Because it so successfully involves you with its central characters, it will also touch your heart. Despite its mid-year release, I hope to see the picture in the award races at the end of the year. Cheadle has got to be there. Maybe Henson too. And though his Nick Caraway character sets up rather than executes the key action, Ejiofor deserves attention as well. Like Cheadle, he's got dazzling range.
- 169; Focus Features