A film review by Craig J. Koban
Rank: # 18
TALK TO ME
2007, R, 119 mins.
2007, R, 119 mins.
Don Cheadle / Dewey Hughes:
Chiwetel Ejiofor / "Nighthawk" Bob Terry:
Cedric the Entertainer / Milo Hughes:
Mike Epps / Sonderling:
Martin Sheen / Sunny Jim: Vondie Curtis-Hall
"I'll tell it to the hot, I'll tell it to the cold. I'll tell it to the young, I'll tell it to the old. I don't want no laughin', I don't want no cryin', and most of all, no signifyin'. This is Petey Greene's Washington."
- Ralph "Petey" Greene (Don Cheadle)
in TALK TO ME
TALK TO ME is an absorbing, funny, and utterly fascinating new docudrama that deals with the turbulence of the 1960's through a decidedly African American perspective. The film is strong for the way it fosters such a sense of nostalgia for its period, but more crucially it takes an intimate look at a very significant time when the radio airways made a sharp transition from easy-going and comfortable formats to sharper, more aggressively acerbic, and take-no-prisoners radio personalities that rigidly and willfully attacked the status quo.
At the heart of the film lies one of the more intriguing personalities I’ve seen in a biopic. He is Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, whose story seems so sensationalistic that it could occupy the storyline of a lurid soap opera. What’s so compelling is the journey that Greene took in his career.
He went from being discharged as a soldier during the Korean War for drug abuse and then was convicted of armed robbery at a small grocery store in 1960. He would become imprisoned at Lorton Reformatory with a 10 year sentence. Then something surprising happened. Greene became the prison’s disc jockey and his brash, in-your-face, and hilariously vulgar rants became a huge hit with both prisoners and guards. Greene was a shock-jock long before the Howard Sterns of the world took accolades for that label, and long before the term was even in the public consciousness. Greene may have been a two-bit con, but on the radio he was larger than life.
Then the improbable happened. In 1965 Greene persuaded a fellow inmate that was contemplating suicide to stop, which pleased the warden so much that - alongside his penchant for good behaviour in prison - convinced him to reduce Greene’s sentence and to give him an early parole. Astoundingly, Greene later admitted that it only took him a few minutes to get the suicidal inmate down, but it took him "six months to get him up there."
Now, most convicts would have great difficulty finding employment on the outside, but Greene is another breed of determined go-getter. Within no time he managed to haggle his way into doing a radio gig at Washington’s WOL AM station. His ability to be a honest and forthright voice of the black community became a gigantic, overnight hit. This led to him having his own TV talk show and a series of sold out stand-up gigs. By the late 1970's he was so popular that he was even invited by President Carter to be a guest at the White House. He would also make an infamous appearance on the Tonight Show, become a community activist, worked for organizations that assisted ex-cons, and became an outspoken advocate against poverty and racism. When he died of cancer in 1984 he had over 10,000 people attend the services; that’s the most for a non-elected official in the city’s history.
Not bad for a former drug addict and convicted criminal.
TALK TO ME covers most of Greene’s amazing life story - spanning 1966 to 1984 - but it also works as a touching, frequently droll, and compelling story of two polar opposites that overcome their respective differences and become lifelong friends. As the film opens we meet a programming director of WOL named Dewey Hughes (played in another great, under the radar performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor) who visits his brother Milo (Mike Epps) in prison. Dewey is clearly ashamed of his brother’s status and visits him only as a favor to their mother. While there he hears Petey Greene (in another Oscar caliber performance by the great Don Cheadle) doing his prison radio show, which consists of playing lots of R&B, discussing current events, and dropping a considerable amount of F-bombs.
Dewey does meet Petey and casually tells him to look him up when he’s on the outside, thinking that he could be good in a custodial job for the station. Petey is not impressed with Dewey - whom he calls a "Sidney Pottier nigger", a white man covered in black skin - and lashes out that he wants a job on the airways. Dewey quickly dismisses the rants of this con, not thinking to much about his plight.
Yet, Dewey does get a stern walk up call when Petey does get an early parole and storms into the radio station and demands a job on the radio. He lambastes the shocked and dismayed Dewey, not to mention the station’s general manager (Martin Sheen), but it’s abundantly clear that neither of them will give the hot-headed and potty-mouthed conman a shot on the air...and can you blame them? Petey’s colorful and ubiquitous use of four and twelve letter variations of the most foul f-word could get the station in serious hot water with the FCC, so Dewey’s willingness to give him a legitimate shot is weak at best.
Miraculously, Petey manages to convince Dewey that he deserves his chance, but his attempts to get on the air are troublesome at best (the two are forced to lock the station manager and the normal radio host, the soft spoken "Sunny Jim", in their offices and hijack the recording studio). When the manager frees himself and gets security and is seconds away from breaking into the recording booth and shutting down Petey for good, he notices something: the phone lines for the station are ringing off the hook. Realizing that Petey has become a very quick hit, the manager decides to give the con a shot at the big time.
At this point the film then thrusts headfirst into showing Petey’s meteoric rise to fame. His take-no-prisoner’s mentality and his predilection to telling it "like it is" hits a strong cord with his listeners. However, the real turning point of his career that launched him even further occurred with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.. Forced with the unimaginable of dissecting and commenting on the chaos of what has happened, Petey goes on the air and gives an impassioned, rightfully angry, and honest discussion on the futility of violence and how damn tired he is of leaders being killed. The absolute senselessness of the assassination is difficult to put into words for Petey, but after he gets off the air he is celebrated and lauded for his efforts. Ironically, the tragedy of King’s death is a focal transition point for Petey’s continued rise to fame.
The film then takes a different change of tone and pace afterwards, which highlights Dewey becoming Petey’s manager and trying to take him to the big time. Here lies the heart of the film, not to mention the escalating tension and strain that has permeated Petey’s and Dewey’s checkered friendship. Dewey, always being in the background, lives vicariously through Petey. He grew up idolizing Johnny Carson and dreamed of being like him. Since he can’t see making it there himself, he tries to live his dreams through Petey, but what he fails to understand is whether Petey wants to share in his dreams. Sure, Petey hits the stand-up tours, makes appearances, but his rapid rise in the media spotlight subverts his true passion of being a disc jockey. All of this comes to the forefront during Petey’s less-than-enthusiastic appearance on the Tonight Show, where he looks at the vast Caucasian audience and states, "All I see is a lot of white folk expecting me to tell nigger jokes." He softly apologizes to Carson and then walks off.
TALK TO ME works stupendously on so many levels. As a travelogue into the past, the film is able to command interest into some of the largest moments of social change in America’s history, which is superimposed alongside the rise and fall of Petey’s and Dewey’s careers. There are individual moments of surrealistic power, as is the case when Dewey and Petey leave their station after the King assassination and see the city streets erupting into flames. The moment when Petey gets back on the airwaves and tries to both simultaneously calm the rioters and validate their sense of unease is TALK TO ME’S most powerful scene; the film is thoroughly evocative as a touching and sobering look at not only our past social history, but also for the way it focuses on a distinctive and controversial media personality that tried to make a name for himself during these times.
Beyond that, the film contains one of the best tandem performances of the year in Ejiofor and Cheadle. Ejiofer is slowly starting to take claim as the next Denzel Washington for the way is able to infuse a passionate soul and personality in his characters. Dewey could have been written as a weak sidekick to Petey, but the screenplay is very democratic for the way it chronicles his career and life as well as Petey’s. He occupies one of the best written and acted moments in the film, where he utterly destroys Petey in a pool match and discusses why Petey should not disrespect him based on his white collar appearance: He too has a history of hardship, even if his middle-upper class appearance does not reflect it.
Then, of course, there is Petey, played in a performance that covers just about every end of the emotional spectrum by Cheadle. What’s extraordinary here is that Cheadle manages to find that difficult meshing of broad, boisterous, over-the-top comedy in some moments and then later manages to dial down everything to play the tender and dramatic scenes. Petey, thankfully, is never portrayed as a water-downed personality, nor is the screenplay too saccharine with the underlining material. He was certainly no saint (he was fiercely judgmental, cold hearted at times, an abusive alcoholic, and a fiendish womanizer and cheat) and Cheadle is able to portray all of these frailties with minimal fuss. In his hands Petey becomes a man of warmth, conviction, determination, and vulnerability all at the same time. It’s one of his best performances.
TALK TO ME is one of the more enthralling and entertaining biopics of the year for the way it tells the story of an unimaginable star that came from complete obscurity and became a huge celebrity during a time when American was at its most fragile state. The film is able to leapfrog over the sanctimonious phoniness and contrivances that have plagued other docudramas and instead takes an honest look at a bygone era and two personalities that tried to make a claim at the same time. The film rightfully is able to tell a story of societal unrest and unease alongside the tale of two men that grew both apart and together in friendship. With two dynamic, Oscar worthy performances from Cheadle and Ejiofer, a potent and enthralling look at the past, and thought-provoking themes, TALK TO ME emerges as a fascinating biography and an immersing history lesson all at the same time.