There's nothing quite like watching a great actor do their thing, and if you haven't figured it out yet, Don Cheadle is a great actor. That much was obvious when he landed a recurring role on the television series Picket Fences, or when he outshined Denzel Washington in Devil in a Blue Dress. And even when he is in crap like Mission to Mars or Swordfish, or when he's stuck playing basically the same character in films like Out of Sight or Bulworth, Cheadle gives a great performance. By the time he received an Oscar nomination for Hotel Rwanda, Cheadle had moved up from the ranks of a character actor in supporting roles to leading man, catching those who weren't paying attention unaware. He has not yet made it to the A-list of black actors--a short list that consists primarily of Denzel, Will Smith and Jamie Foxx--but as Talk to Me proves, Don Cheadle is certainly a talent to be reckoned with.
Cheadle stars as Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, the legendary radio show host who became a dynamic figure in Washington D.C. starting in the late 1960s. While visiting his brother Milo (Mike Epps) in prison, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) meets Petey, who asks him for a job at WOL-AM. Dewey dismisses the convict, promising him that "I'll see what I can do," should the convict ever get out of prison. Much to Dewey's surprise, Petey soon shows up at the station, demanding a job, and laying the groundwork for a rollercoaster relationship between the two men. Once on the air, Petey becomes a huge hit with the black community, who are taken with his tell-it-like-it-is persona. Station owner E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen) has no idea what to make of Petey, but he loves the fact that the station's ratings are up. Pushing himself as the voice of the people, and with Dewey behind him as a guiding force, Petey eventually gets his own television show, which is more outrageous than his radio program. But, alas, with popularity and good fortune come many vices and temptations, which threaten Petey's career, his long-term relationship with girlfriend Vernell (Taraji P. Henson), as well as his relationship with Dewey.
There are so many ways in which Talk to Me could have gone wrong, it is a miracle that it went right. For starters, we're dealing with a biopic, and when a biopic goes wrong it really goes wrong, often degenerating into sentimental slop that can make a real person's life look like a series of ridiculous clichés. Seven years ago, in 2000, there was a film in development about the life of Petey Greene with comedian Martin Lawrence attached to star, which gives you an idea of how wrong Talk to Me could have gone. It would have been easy to play this story primarily for laughs, rather than exploring Petey or Dewey with any sense of depth or emotional complexity--after all, most other black films do that all the time. But what Talk to Me attempts, and pulls off, is to create a pair of complex characters who are as interesting as they are flawed. Ultimately, the film is as much about Dewey as it is about Petey.
The relationship between Petey and Dewey that drive Talk to Me is a complex and fascinating character study. Petey represents a brash flamboyance and reckless disregard for the rules of society that Dewey longs to express, whereas Dewey possesses ambition and inner strength that Petey lacks. Petey is Mr. Hyde to Dewey's Dr. Jekyll. The two men balance each other out, creating a yin yang dynamic that is driven by the chemistry between Cheadle and Ejiofor.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has been steadily building an impressive list of supporting roles in films like Children of Men, Serenity, and Inside Man, holds his own opposite Cheadle, and as Talk to Me shifts focus to Dewey's story in the third act, he manages to carry the film. For actors like Ejiofor and Cheadle, Talk to Me provides a wonderful opportunity to showcase talents that are otherwise lost in lesser films.
Talk to Me is an incredibly solid film, with assured direction by Kasi Lemmons and a well-layered script by Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa. Like most biopics it sets out to tell a large, complex story in a relatively short time, spanning nearly twenty years in just under two hours. Unlike other biopics, however, Talk to Me never gets that awkward clunky feeling that often happens when several years are condensed into a matter of minutes. Where other films "inspired by a true story" often fall short is that they come across as some sort of CliffsNotes version of a larger story, but Talk to Me is structured in such a way that it gives the impression of being more complete. It seems less concerned with teaching history as it is with simply entertaining the audience, and pushing a few emotional buttons along the way. And to be sure, emotional buttons do get pushed, especially during a powerful sequence that takes place after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, when Petey helps to sooth a city that erupted in violence.
The over-all success of Talk to Me can be measured on several levels. First and foremost, it is a very well-made film with great performances by the entire cast. Second, it gives long-overdue attention to Petey Greene, who not only served as a pioneer in the world of radio shock jocks, he also helped inner-city black America find its voice during the post-Civil Rights years. Finally, Talk to Me bridges the gap between entertainment and social enlightenment, never falling back on the trappings that often plague films of this nature which can leave them either too heavy-handed or too light-hearted.
Talk to Me is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The image transfer is clean, but the picture itself is a bit dark. With all of the attention paid to the production and costume design, it seems unlikely that the films itself would be this dark. Instead, this seems like the result of a poorly supervised transfer.
Talk to Me is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital. The audio levels are a bit low, and the mix is such that on occasion dialog seems to be competing with the soundtrack.
Two featurettes that feel like recycled material from the EPK make up the bulk of the disappointing bonus features. Who is Petey Greene? (10 min.) is the more disappointing of the two, coming across like the standard sort of promotional short it is. At no point does the featurette really answer the question it asks, instead it simply promotes the movie. There is no footage of the real Petey Greene, no interviews with the real Dewey Hughes, and no participation by anyone other than the cast and crew. All of which makes for a terribly missed opportunity. Why not make a short doc about Greene, and give viewers something of real substance, as opposed to some lightweight bullshit meant to get the attention of an audience who has already watched the film? Recreating P-Town (11 min.) is slightly more informative, but certainly no less pedestrian, as it explains how the costumes and the sets were designed. A handful of deleted scenes (most of them actually extended versions of existing scenes) actually raise questions about why they were cut. This is especially true of the minute or two trimmed from Martin Sheen's powerful moment following the murder of Martin Luther King. The same is true of two scenes that were completely excised, that help develop Petey's humanity as a character. It would have been nice to have an audio commentary for the entire film, as well with the deleted scenes.
I don't know how to say it other than Talk to Me is a great film. It didn't do that well at the box office, so unless it wins an Oscar or two, I doubt that there will ever be a disc with a better selection of bonus features. That would be my only reason for holding off on buying it now (that and the price will go down soon enough).
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]