Hey! “Talk to Me” so exceeded my expectations that I feel righteous in telling you to get your butt into a theater to see it. It is based on the life of Ralph Waldo Petey Greene, Jr. (played brilliantly by Don Cheadle), a 60s radio and TV personality who brought street politics to the Washington DC airwaves. Petey Greene, jailed for the armed robbery of a corner grocery store following his military service in Korea, began his career at the prison radio station. Part Lenny Bruce, part Dick Gregory, he started as he meant to go on: telling the truth, his truth.
While incarcerated, Petey gets one lucky break. The brother of a fellow inmate had just been made program director at the main DC soul radio station. Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the well-spoken, conservatively dressed homeboy who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps by imitating the walk and talk of his hero Johnny Carson. (Disclosure: We used to sit around wrecked in the 60s talking about what jobs we would take after The Revolution; while my collective sisters wanted to be Minister of Peace or Attorney General, I dreamed of getting Carson’s job. Still do.)
The eventual partnership between Greene and Dewey leads to big-time exposure for Petey and his rough urban truths. Through battles with drugs and alcohol, the love of a feisty and sizzling woman Vernell Watson (played by the super-talented Taraji P. Henson) keeps him grounded. Henson is an explosive, sexy actress to watch out for. Martin Sheen plays (in quite a predictable way) the station owner E.G. Sonderling, who first resists and then embraces Greene. Petey’s on-air popularity is instant, bringing a change to the station’s tone and to the disc list. Washington D.C. becomes P[etey]-town.
Starting in 1966 and extending to Greene’s funeral (10,000 mourners) in 1984, the film covers a period and plays the tunes that speak to those tumultuous times – times we boomers recall as the most passionate of our lives. Before Greene is hired, the music is all mellow Motown and R&B; he quickly brings in cutting edge work of the times, from Sam Cooke’s political “Change Is Gonna Come” to the new funk sound of Sly and the Family Stone to the folksy Chambers Brothers.
Soundly directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), “Talk To Me” takes you right back to the soundtrack and tribulations of those days when people of color were quite explicitly leading the way for all progressives. The prominence of the civil rights movement when Petey begins gives way to the murders of its leaders and on to the excesses of the early 80s. Petey struggles to find his balance between keeping it real and coping with ambition – especially the thrusting ambition of Dewey. The triangular friendship among the two men and Vernell is the moving centerpiece in a film that gives us back a piece of American culture. Unhappily, most of the radio and TV tapes of Petey Green’s work have been erased. The clip I have posted here is a rare piece. Enjoy it and then go see the film.