By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published July 19, 2007
“Talk to Me,” the new film directed by Kasi Lemmons, is often funny, touching and thought provoking, and it always seems real. This genuineness is a tribute to the man who inspired the story, Washington, D.C., radio personality Petey Greene, whose trademark style was to speak his mind candidly, even on topics others did not want to touch.
The film focuses upon the unlikely friendship that develops between the pugnacious Greene and his more conventional program manager, Dewey Hughes. Hughes and Greene were fixtures on the Washington scene during the tumultuous years that spanned the late ‘60s and ‘70s. “Talk to Me” opens in 1966 when Greene is incarcerated at Lorton Prison. Hughes meets him briefly while visiting his own brother. Greene has developed a small radio show to entertain the convicts, but the straightlaced Hughes is decidedly unimpressed.
Undeterred, Petey Greene engineers an early release and back in Washington, demands a job at radio station WOL, where Hughes has just been promoted to program manager. Appalled by Greene’s in-your-face style, Hughes at first refuses, but after a series of confrontations, he ultimately risks his own job to give Greene a chance. Hughes realizes that the times and the market call for a DJ who could not only play appealing music, but who could also speak directly to, and for, the people. Petey Greene becomes that man. A forerunner of today’s “shock jocks,” Greene was outspoken on politics, race and social injustice—and he became immediately successful. He was the right man at the right time.
A depiction of the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. serves as the centerpiece for the film. Faced with rioting in the streets and overcome with both anger and sorrow, the two men must take to the airwaves to announce Dr. King’s death. Amazingly, Petey Greene, known for his confrontational, no-holds-barred style, finds a voice to soothe a grieving, violent city in a series of scenes that are poignant and heart wrenching.
The men who inhabit these characters must be given great credit for making them fully dimensional and appealing, despite their faults. Don Cheadle does a masterful job as Petey Greene. The script never shies away from showing Greene’s less admirable qualities—the belligerence, the unpredictability, the womanizing—usually with language that is blistering. In Cheadle’s hands, however, Greene is often funny and always affecting. He shows the depth and soul of a man who is always fighting to survive, even when he is on top of the world.
The less showy role of Dewey Hughes could have been reduced to that of a mere straight man, but Chiwetel Ejiofor shows the many layers of the man. Petey Greene soon realizes, as does the audience, that there is more to this serious, stubborn young man than meets the eye. Over the course of the film Ejiofor touchingly shows how Hughes comes into his own and how Greene, in ways neither man expects, makes Hughes a better man.
The supporting cast is also exemplary. Taraji P. Henson takes the role of Greene’s brassy girlfriend Vernell and makes it her own. Henson not only inhabits Vernell’s bold and brazen exterior for laughs, she also demonstrates the woman’s heartbreak and loyalty. Cedric the Entertainer and Vondie Curtis-Hall make the most of limited time on screen as WOL’s other DJs, and Martin Sheen is an old pro as the blustering boss who ultimately comes to respect Petey.
Stylistically, the film is worth the price of admission just to see the fashions that come through the halls of WOL. From the dated formal office wear of the clerks and secretaries to the DJs’ flashy leisure suits to Vernell’s eye-popping ensembles, the clothes are a colorful fashion time capsule.
From a fast-paced and lively opening, the film slows down in its final third. To her credit, however, director Lemmons does not allow the film to dwell on the sentimental or to veer into melodrama. Apart from a predictable subplot involving Hughes and his brother, even the emotional scenes at the end of the film feel true.
“Talk to Me” does not make a saint out of Petey Greene. He is often wrong, unreliable, even offensive. However, the film also shows him as a character to be admired for his candor and his ability to get to the heart of the matter and speak to people in a way that respects what ought to be respected and sheds light on what ought to be seen.
Editor’s Note: The film contains pervasive rough, crude and crass language and several instances of profanity, sexual encounters with partial nudity, innuendo, alcohol abuse, rioting, infidelity, domestic discord and assorted fighting. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is L—limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R—restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.