Talk to Me is one of those well-meaning biopics that sets out to portray a largely unheralded, revolutionary personality, but in its fears that we might not understand that the subject is a good guy, exorcises one too many of the man's demons.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou), Talk to Me stars Don Cheadle as Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, a radio star and activist in Washington D.C. from the 1960s to the 1980s who was, inarguably, one of the good guys. He'd also be the first to tell you that this wasn't always so. Raised by parents who were in and out of jail his whole life and ending his education in junior high, he was a thief who got sent away for five to ten. In prison, he finagled his way into the chair behind the P.A. microphone so he could share a Sam Cooke record with his fellow prisoners. Pretty soon, he parlayed that into an in-house radio show, entertaining the other inmates with his straight talk and humor.
It was through another prisoner (played here by Mike Epps) that Petey met Dewey Hughes (Serenity's Chiwetel Ejiofor), a rising black executive at D.C.'s WOL radio station, an R&B channel struggling under the out-of-date guidance of its white owners. Petey latches on to the positive kernel in Dewey's kiss-off, finding the man at his work and talking his way into a job in the morning slot, despite the protestations of the station's owner (Martin Sheen) and, at times, Dewey's better judgment.
Once on the air, Petey's fearlessness in telling it like it is (in his first broadcast, he accuses Motown's Barry Gordy of being a glorified pimp) and his excellent taste in music makes him a favorite of the locals. Seeing big things in Petey's big mouth, Dewey starts booking the man in theatres and clubs, gets him his own television show, and even a shot at the big time, lining up a slot on "The Tonight Show." Inevitably, though, something is going to go wrong. Petey is too outlandish of an individual to take the easy way with anything.
Visually, these scenes are nicely edited to show us how one performance rolls into another, how what looks natural was often an act, but at the same time, there isn't a shot of Greene on stage or in the radio station that we haven't seen before. It's elsewhere, in the social stuff, where the film team gets it right.
The late '60s and early '70s were an important time in the Civil Rights Movement, and activism was an integral part of our society. Lemmons and her screenwriters, Michael Genet (She Hate Me) and Rick Famuyia (The Wood), want to show how important a person like Petey Greene was for giving the common man a voice. Men and women like Greene, by speaking up, became a megaphone to get important things heard. Petey was an entertainer and provocateur, but he was also the rarest of beasts: someone who believed what he said. The best scenes in this movie revolve around the night Martin Luther King, Jr. died, and Greene stayed on the radio trying to calm rioters in D.C. It ends with him playing that same Sam Cooke record, "A Change is Gonna Come," and the poignancy of the music, coming on the heels of the DJ's honestly expressed sentiment, choked me up a little bit. It's pretty easy to oversell such cultural moments from the '60s, but Lemmons handles it delicately.
Unfortunately, the director also handles what ails the man delicately, and in this case, too delicately. I realize that a biopic has the difficult job of compressing a man's whole life into under two hours, and this requires some kind of streamlining. We've come to expect that everything is going to line up just right for a struggling artist like Petey Greene, that he's going to have his rise, his fall, and everything in between come in a neatly ordered fashion. The problem with movies like this and Ray and the like is that it tries to gloss over the fact that the price of genius is often torment and an internal darkness. Greene's prison stay is reduced to an anecdote, and his struggles with alcohol, women, and the fear his fame brings is dealt with very gentle hands. The scenes of Petey getting drunk and causing trouble feel more like they were mandatory than necessary. Likewise, we are told that the things he says are dangerous, but Talk to Me is absent of any story points where Greene gets in any real trouble for speaking out. His only regular adversary is Dewey. Thus, Talk to Me defangs someone who, by all accounts, had very sharp teeth.
This leaves us with a decent movie, but not a special one. The two main reasons for you to see Talk to Me at some point are the soundtrack--which features, in addition to Cooke, Otis Redding, James Brown, Eddie Floyd, and others--and the performance given by Don Cheadle. In all honesty, this was my first introduction to Petey Greene, and Cheadle makes him charismatic and fast-talking, but also manages to show some of the doubt behind the bravado. At times, his vocal patterns sound like a put-on, but I think part of the brilliance of Cheadle's approach is that he is finding the division between off-stage Petey and on-stage Petey and attempting to show how the personas feed one another and, really, are inseparable. Talk to Me is Cheadle's movie all the way, and he never gives us cause to doubt. (Hit YouTube and type in "Petey Greene," and a couple of clips will pop up. Cheadle is remarkably close to the mark, here.)
Still, a great performance in a so-so movie still means we've got a so-so movie on our hands. Talk to Me wants us to feel like it's giving us the whole story, but in the end, leaves viewers feeling like not everything has been said. Given the ferocity of its biographical subject and the skill of the actor trying to bring that focal figure to life, more is the pity that the screenwriters and director didn't take Petey Greene's message to heart and simply tell it like it was.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.