First, let us praise Don Cheadle. The actor, who never seems to give a bad performance, is riveting in Talk to Me as Petey Greene, the ex-con who became an influential radio DJ in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s and ’70s.
It’s easy for Cheadle to grab our attention when he’s decked out in Greene’s electric threads and firing off a hilariously profane rap on the state of the black man. But dig Cheadle when Greene’s defenses are down — when he’s the insecure fuck-up, the man playing out of his league, the “voice of the people” struggling to articulate a community’s endemic frustration. Beyond Greene’s jivey buffoonery, Cheadle fills in a unique cultural icon who is both triumphant and undone by his peculiar survival skills.
Cheadle’s able foil in Talk to Me is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who portrays Dewey Hughes, the director of programming at WOL-AM, the small R&B station where Greene finds a berth. Hughes, like Greene, comes from the capital’s rough streets. But despite the flowering of black power, Hughes’ role model is the epitome of middle-class middle America: Johnny Carson. Greene sneeringly calls Hughes “Mr. Tibbs” and worse. Their volatile partnership is the heart of Kasi Lemmons’ funny and bittersweet bio-pic, from a screenplay co-written by Michael Genet, who is Hughes’ real-life son.
The two meet in 1966, when Hughes is visiting his brother in jail; Greene, who spins platters on the prison’s PA, begs unsuccessfully for a job. Upon his release, Greene and his micro-skirted girlfriend Vernell (Hustle and Flow’s Taraji P. Henson) turn up at the WOL offices in full “wild-ass, shit-talking” mode. “Tell your boss Petey Greene is on the scene,” Greene brays, terrifying the receptionist and the station’s boss (Martin Sheen).
Greene’s antics pay off, and inside WOL he finds his niche, even as outside, civil-rights battles rage. The establishment needs street credibility (if only for market share), and the increasingly angry man on the street needs a platform broader than a street corner. The symbiotic relationship finds its watershed moment during the riots that followed Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination, when Greene famously opened the airwaves to distraught and enraged callers.
But in the 1970s, when Hughes strives to take Greene beyond radio and into comedy, a rift between the colleagues develops, and Talk to Me mulls over the dilemmas posed by late-20th-century class dynamics. For Hughes, an ambitious black man working within the system, opportunities abound. But Greene won’t compromise his “realness” even for economic and professional advancement, and is left floundering.
What’s a pinnacle for Hughes — booking Greene on The Tonight Show — is a humiliating misstep for the deejay-turned-comedian. Before Carson’s fabled gold curtain, Greene tells the audience his truth — that his “success” at playing the funny, angry black man for white mainstream audiences has altered his relationship with spectators. They’re not laughing with me, he complains, but at me. (Four decades later, comedian Dave Chapelle would voice a similar concern when he fled his successful TV show.)
Talk to Me is certainly an entertaining portrait, juiced up with period clothes and a funky soundtrack. At times the story feels incomplete — neither Greene’s family nor his longstanding community work gets an airing — and the screenplay is guilty of compressing and fudging for the sake of entertainment. I’m not the least bit convinced that Greene was hired at WOL as depicted on screen — though, I hasten to add, it’s the film’s funniest sequence.
The film’s final shot is a solitary radio mike. Greene died in 1984, but more than just his voice is gone. The film is an elegy of sorts for radio when it was more than just background to our traffic jams, when a DJ could also function as a community leader and local mouthpiece. In the current state of conglomerate radio, local on-air talent with distinctive voices are virtually nonexistent. The rabble-rousers are well-padded national personalities whose rants seem wholly contrived — more entertainment than howl from the streets.
“Watch your language” is the station owner’s continual refrain to Greene. But where are today’s Petey Greenes? Watch your bottom line, says corporate headquarters.
Starts Fri., Aug. 3.