The surfaces and contours of Talk to Me are banal and predictable. The story of Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, an ex-con who became a popular Washington, D.C., radio personality in the '60s and '70s and died of cancer in the '80s, it's an "inspirational" biopic that seems to paint by the genre numbers. Earnest and audience pleasing, it would be decent but forgettable if the "inspirational" story weren't also inspired.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Don Cheadle, who brings depth and spark to a choice role, Talk to Me is a vision of '60s social tumult seen exclusively from a black perspective, something our culture — steeped in white baby-boomer nostalgia and Summer of Love remembrances — hasn't given us enough of.
The film opens in May 1966, as Washington radio programmer Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofer) visits his brother in prison and is confronted by prison disc jockey Greene, who pesters him about getting a job upon his release.
When Petey eventually talks his way onto the air, replacing button-down, bland morning man Sunny Jim (Vondie Curtis-Hall) in a bid to give the station more street appeal, he gives the well-meaning white station president (Martin Sheen) more reality than he wants: "Some of my best friends are pimps, whores, and hustlers. I guess that doesn't make me much different from Berry Gordy," Greene says by way of introduction. The station manager is apoplectic, firing Petey on the spot until Dewey and Petey convince him that his new morning man is just "saying things black folks already know."
This style makes Petey a beloved and controversial local star whose act eventually extends to club gigs and a local TV talk show. (Introducing a black politician on the TV show: "My guest tonight is a pimp that I wouldn't trust to wash my car, but y'all done elected him a city official ...")
Cheadle is electric — nailing the easy part, Petey's quick-lipped swagger, but also capturing the self-conscious, self-doubting ex-con beneath the surface. Ejiofer's Dewey matches Cheadle's Petey as a testy duo whose symbolism is familiar yet still pertinent: They're inside and outside, Martin and Malcolm, house and field. Ejiofer plays the straight man but aces his one big scene in a pool hall.
Talk to Me is a sadly rare thing in contemporary movie culture: a serious African-American film, made by a black director with mostly black cast. And serious, in this case, doesn't mean boring. It means not pandering. Ambitious. Meaningful.
Talk to Me would be a fine genre film — more surprising, lively, and perceptive than its familiar template suggests. But two big moments make it more. One I should have seen coming, but instead it caught me off guard: the assassination of Martin Luther King and Petey's attempt to address it on air while his city falls apart.
The other is Petey's big break, when Dewey lands him a stand-up comic spot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Petey steps in front of the white studio audience, stutters and fidgets for a few moments, and then says he wants to believe the audience is there to laugh with him, not at him. But "when I look at y'all, all I see is a room full of white folks waiting to hear some nigger jokes. Y'all ain't ready for Petey Greene."
An enraged Dewey treats this like a career meltdown, in the same way people treated comedian Dave Chappelle when he turned his back on millions and fled to Africa. But maybe Chappelle got tired of young white fans repeating his "Rick James, bitch" line and wondering whether his racially oriented humor was actually reinforcing his audience's racial biases. Maybe Chappelle's meltdown, like Petey Greene's in Talk to Me, was really a moment of tough clarity and righteous honesty. It's hard out here for a smart black entertainer in a white society. And acknowledging that reality makes Talk to Me something more than the standard biopic.
Talk to Me
Opening Friday, July 27th