Times are hard. It’s the spring of 1967 and the tension culminated alongside the civil rights movement has not only reached its boiling point but is about to boil right over. When the movement’s most prominent leader, Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, his messages of brotherly love and non-violent approaches to change are forgotten. Riots erupted nationwide in over 60 cities as an immense collection of anger was expressed through unrest and displaced ferocity. In Washington D.C., the city was calmed in part by the voice of one man, a radio DJ by the name of Petey Greene. His morning call-in show was the kind of success that unified its listeners and polarized both their spirits and convictions. Petey prided himself on staying true to himself and speaking that truth no matter what the consequence. The people responded to his frank honesty with devotion and respect. So when he went back on the air to talk the people of Washington down off their ledges on the night of Dr. King’s death, it was the trust that had already been established that soothed the fire in the souls; they healed together. After that night, Petey’s career was never the same. “Talk to Me”, the new film by Kasi Lemmons, tells Petey’s inspiring story. Only it doesn’t so much tell it as manipulate it into a conventional narrative about shared friendship and separate dreams designed for maximum emotional impact.
Petey Greene (Don Cheadle) is first discovered by Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he broadcasts in prison. The two men are instantly placed in juxtaposition to each other in the context of the film. Petey may be in a literal prison but Dewey is in a prison of his own design. The two will need each other to break out and reach the heights of their potential but they must first get past their instinctual dislike for each other. From where Dewey stands, Petey is the kind of black man what gives everyone else a bad name by playing to type and giving into violent, illegal impulses. Meanwhile, from where Petey stands, Dewey has sold his soul to the white man, walking and talking like his white colleagues in an effort to hide his black skin as best he can. The irony is that they both feel that the other is doing a great disservice to the community and that they themselves are role models for the new black identity. Both actors give strong, commanding performances. Cheadle pushes his versatility further as the raucous button-pusher with a turn that is both volatile and reckless. On the other side of the glass, Ejiofor exhibits restraint and an internalized fire that gives his intentions away no matter how hard he tries to mask them. Both could be contenders come awards season if the words coming out of their mouths weren’t so formulaic and plain.
While Lemmons may not have made “Talk to Me” into the socially telling film it could have been, she does manage moments of insight, tension and brotherhood. Most of these moments are found in the broadcast booths and offices of real life R&B music station, WOL. Prior to getting a job at the station, Petey had grown comfortable speaking his mind to whoever would listen. Whoever would, would always be limited in number. When finally faced with his first time at the mic, expectations are high. After all, Petey has the pressure of being a natural and he’s never had to perform for anyone but himself before. He’s also never had to watch his tongue before, but he, along with the station owners, soon learns that in order for Petey to be Petey, he’s got to just let the words flow. That said, he also learns that a powerful voice comes with responsibility so in order to continue having that voice in such a public and corporate forum, he can only push the line so far. After all, no matter real the station tries to keep it, the white suits who run the show and sign Petey’ checks have sponsors to answer to.
It’s a shame that a movie with such a funky soundtrack would be lacking in so much soul but “Talk to Me” still manages to keep a solid enough groove to keep it alive. I just wish Lemmons had spent more time heeding Petey Greene’s message, to keep it real because the truth is what people respond to above all else. Instead, the watered down reality of Petey’s path to fame and examination of the relationships that got him there has been mangled and crammed into a pretty picture that the masses can enjoy. The story of a man who told it like it was is told here as politely as Hollywood will allow.
Review by Joseph Bélanger