The true story of Washington, D.C. DJ "Petey" Greene, Talk to Me celebrates the personality whose wide-ranging life-experience peaked when he got behind the mic at WOL-AM and turned D.C. into "P-Town." Kasi Lemmons' film (scripted by Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa) is as much the story of Dewey Hughes, the program director who took a chance on Petey. Their friendship—tested by personality differences and forged in political fire—is the heart of a lively film that pulses with '60s and '70s R&B.
The story begins with Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor)—while visiting his brother in prison—meeting Petey (Don Cheadle). Petey's five-year sentence for armed robbery is made bearable by a gig as in-"Big House" DJ, and he immediately sees in Hughes an exploitable resource for post-prison employment. Hughes laughs off the encounter, but Petey's unexpected early release finds him making noise at the threshold of WOL, much to the chagrin of station owner E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen).
Shutting up Petey and his mouthy girlfriend Vernell (Taraji P. Henson) in the short term means giving Petey an on-air shot. The nerve-wracking first show produces uncomfortable straight talk (including lacerating insults to Motown's Berry Gordy) but also a palpable audience response. Petey's shtick keeps it real with the audience and worships no sacred cows. His revolutionary relatability resembles that of a genius standup comic, and indeed Hughes—soon acting as Petey's agent—parlays Petey's talent and earned goodwill into standup gigs (Petey rhymes like Ali and pushes envelopes like Redd Foxx).
Talk to Me pivots on the tensions between Petey and Dewey, exaggerated for effect. Brash Petey has a self-destructive streak—alcoholism, womanizing, an allergy to social grace—but his talent burns white-hot, and he has the people in his thrall. Dewey has learned to work within the old guard as a matter of his own intense ambition. This constitutional disagreement also reflects the African-American neurosis of retaining black identity. Dewey's early impression of Petey is that he's a "miscreant"; Petey calls Dewey "another white boy with a tan," a "Sidney Poitier-ass nigger," and a "sellout." According to Petey, both are "cons."
Before long, both learn to see their own belittling prejudice (in one of the film's most interesting scenes, button-down Hughes demonstrates his black authenticity), but a conflict remains. Dewey's hunger to exploit the Petey Greene brand has no bounds. Petey remains conflicted at best as P-Town expands his borders—it's enough to keep living the dream in his WOL booth.
Genet (who co-wrote She Hate Me for Spike Lee) is Hughes' son, and if the script demonstrates a healthy mix of awe and disappointment regarding both men, it also feels needlessly reductive. Since Petey co-founded Efforts for Ex-Convicts almost immediately upon his prison release, he clearly wasn't all reckless shuck and jive upon meeting Dewey. The script waits until D.C.'s a city on fire to spring Greene's responsible side—he contributes significantly to the cooling of the city during the riots following MLK's death. To underline the point of brother-on-brother strife, the riots are immediately preceded by a brawl between Petey and comically smooth DJ Nighthawk (Cedric the Entertainer).
At this point, the film turns irreversibly sentimental, and it's hard to shake the impression that it's Spike Lee-lite. Genet and Famuwiya use as their early climax an invented episode involving The Tonight Show, the dream gig of Hughes but not of Greene (who drunkenly hollers, "I never asked for this!"). The downward-sliding denouement of Petey and Dewey's relationship includes an interesting career shift for Dewey, but little more about Petey than philosophizing proportional to his declining health.
Like Reign Over Me (oddly, also starring Cheadle), Talk to Me gets much of its power from exploring a tumultuous male relationship with deep-running currents. Cheadle delivers a colorful performance (perhaps too colorful—it's not his subtlest work), and Ejiofor again proves a magnetic presence. Lemmons deserves credit for harnessing their energies, though for a movie about "telling it like it is," her film could stand to focus more on scrupulous sociocultural history and less on compulsively entertaining the audience (then again, Lee repeatedly proves that ideas and entertainment aren't mutually exclusive). On balance, Talk to Me has enough untold story and acting chops to make it worthwhile.
[For Groucho's interview with Kasi Lemmons, click here.]