TALK TO ME (director: Kasi Lemmons; screenwriters: Michael Genet/Rick Famuyiwa/based on a story by Mr. Genet; cinematographer: Stéphane Fontaine; editor: Terilyn A. Shropshire; music: Terence Blanchard; cast: Don Cheadle (Petey Greene), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dewey Hughes), Cedric the Entertainer (Bob Terry, the Nighthawk), Taraji P. Henson (Vernell Watson), Mike Epps (Milo Hughes), Vondie Curtis Hall (Sunny Jim Kelsey), Martin Sheen (E. G. Sonderling); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Mark Gordon/Sidney Kimmel/Joe Fries/Josh McLaughlin; Focus Features; 2007)
“This straightforward schematic biopic never talks to me.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Director Kasi Lemmons (“The Caveman’s Valentine”/”Dr. Hugo”/”Eve’s Bayou”) idea of “keepin’ it real,” for the biopic about ex-con black shock jock and TV talk show host Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene who used that ghetto rap for his motto and who made himself a local household name while on the radio in the late ’60s in Washington, D.C., is an outpouring of nostalgia and a syrupy concoction of endless platitudes that wears thin. Aside from the film being energetic, entertaining and topped off by a lively performance by Don Cheadle as the foul-mouthed voice of the people who tells it like is, Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, this straightforward schematic biopic never talks to me.
It’s based on a story by Michael Genet (the son of Petey Greene, and if you wonder why the shock jock is so glorified and never ripped the answer might lie here) and is co-written by Mr. Genet and Rick Famuyiwa.
The film opens in 1966, where Petey Greene is imprisoned at Virginia’s Lorton prison and is serving a ten-year sentence for armed robbery. Petey talks a convict down from committing suicide (as arranged with the con) and thereby engineers a pardon for himself for good behavior with the befuddled warden. Next stop is a trip to Washington’s old standby R & B radio station WOL-AM, owned by the uptight whitey E. G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen). Petey’s reluctantly hired to improve ratings despite being an unknown and not having any radio experience; since he talks trash and upsets the FCC he’s kept under a short leash by the only black executive at the station, the program director Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Dewey also came out of the ghetto, but you wouldn’t know it as the ambitious well-dressed black man (copying the dress of his hero Johnny Carson) who talks like a white man and is willing to play the white man’s game to move up the ladder, is the polar opposite of the loud and flashy dressing Petey. The two become inextricably linked together, feeling they have a common mission. “I guess I need you to say the things I’m afraid to say,” says the articulate Dewey, “and you need me to do the things you’re afraid to do.” In any case, the D.C. audience connects with Petey’s rants about “black pride” and his street-wise ghetto chatter.
After Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination in 1968, Petey goes on the air all night as Washington burns and his soothing voice acts to calm the ensuing mob violence. This pleases all the whites at the station and the city leaders. The ambitious Dewey now becomes Petey’s manager and gets him nightclub bookings and his own local TV show, and arranges his big crossover to a white audience by getting him a valued guest spot on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.” But Petey walks off while on the air, insultingly telling the white audience he doesn’t feel comfortable performing for them. This leads to a rift between the two, as they each go their separate ways. Dewey becomes a radio DJ on the same station and makes a big splash, meanwhile Petey retreats to a boozy life with his loyal busty Afro wearing trampy lady friend Vernell (Taraji P. Henson) and thereby throws away a chance to become rich and famous. He would die in 1984 at the age of 53 of liver cancer, and an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 mourners lined up outside Washington’s Union Wesley AME Zion Church to pay their last respects.
There’s absolutely no doubt that of the buddies, the filmmaker celebrates Petey more for not selling out to whitey and remaining frank and proud of his racial identity; Lemmons also admires Dewey for his success, but just does not show him as much love because he had to do it by playing whitey’s game and not always being himself. Not knowing all of the true story I still found many reasons to suspect that this film was far from “keepin’ it real,” an aim it was tied to, since I know Petey never made a disastrous appearance on The Johnny Carson Show and was hardly the only black voice to plead for nonviolence after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The film’s characters were not that likable or interesting (the character played by Ejiofor is a dullard that engenders no great sympathy) that it can overcome overlooking all the liberties taken with Petey’s real messy life and his unbridled egotism and his manipulative behavior he shares with all shock jocks whether they are white, black or green. I don’t call Petey’s innovative crass funky style he brought to the radio as progress; to me he’s just another self-promoter out there hustling to the gullible public, and this self-congratulatory biopic needs to take another long look at itself before laying on us such jive as if it’s “word.”
REVIEWED ON 11/29/2007 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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