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Retroactivist: The Black Power of Petey Greene
'Talk' Goes on Location, Back in the Day

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006; D01

"Now, D.C. is Chocolate City, y'all know that, right?" booms the man in the navy blue leisure pants, long, belted vest and peach-toned long-sleeve shirt with the collar open wide. He's standing on the steps in front of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in yesterday's sweltering midday heat, holding court before a crowd sporting a similar look: lots of polyester and plenty of towering Afros.

"They want to keep us down because white folks are afraid of what's going to happen if we stand up!" he yells, using a bullhorn to whip up his audience. Cheers go up. Across the reflecting pool, a group of 20 antiwar protesters march in a circle, chanting, "We want peace! We want peace!" and waving posters in the air.

Another febrile Saturday afternoon in the nation's capital. Tourists with cameras gawk. Residents pass by with nary a second glance at what's second nature in this town.

"Why do you think they want us in jail?" the man hollers, and a cry goes up in response. "They know that if black folks stand tall, we're gonna have something called black power, y'all!"

And then someone calls, "Cut!"

And the man in the fake Afro and fake sideburns -- actor Don Cheadle -- applauds the extras for their performances and starts rapidly unbelting the taupe-and-blue-striped concoction he describes as a "a beautiful vest." Nearby, a gaggle of teenage girls allowed to get close to the set simultaneously snap photographs and call friends on their cellphones. "What's the movie? What's the movie?" they say back and forth to each other.

No one gives them an answer, and it's a pretty safe bet if they'd been told their faces would draw a blank.

Cheadle, star of "Hotel Rwanda" and "Crash," is portraying the legendary Washington television and radio talk show host Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, who stood on these very steps to protest poverty and racism 38 long years ago. Dead since 1984, Greene -- an ex-con and ex-drug addict who made his way from the Lorton penitentiary all the way to dinner at the White House -- is getting his story told, Hollywood-fashion, in a film called "Talk to Me." "Outside of Washington, D.C., I think very few people know of Petey Greene," said Cheadle in an interview Friday. Inside Washington, too, if they're not of a certain age or haven't had the stories passed down.

Described in an authorized biography by local author Lurma Rackley as a man "who conned, rhymed, 'speechified' and laughed his way to heights he hardly dared imagine," Greene was known for his outlandish humor and wardrobe and his outsize efforts to help the young, the old, the poor and the former cons like himself.

His youth in Washington was a blur of poverty, crime and addiction that landed him in Lorton in 1960, sentenced to 10 years for armed robbery. One day, he helped talk down a suicidal fellow inmate; that earned him an early parole. In a life turn that is legendary, he then became an activist, television personality ("Petey Green's Washington" aired on WDCA-TV) and radio talk show host (WOL's "Rapping With Petey Greene").

By the time of his death, he was so well-known and beloved that more than 8,000 people lined up outside Union Wesley AME Zion Church on Michigan Avenue NE to pay tribute.

"It's not necessarily a heroic depiction," said Cheadle, who feels the script captures Greene as honestly as it could. "I think that was his whole thing, being straight-up. He saw what he thought were injustices, what he thought was right or wrong. It's his own skewed vision, but he had really a kind of inarguable position about most things, I find.

"His take on things was very street level, just real, which is why I think people loved him so much. He'd be the one to say, 'The emperor has no clothes.' "

This bluntness is what attracted director Kasi Lemmons, who also directed "Eve's Bayou." She said she "fell in love" with Greene's story.

"I guess the major thing for me," Lemmons says, "is that we're in a time now where people are afraid to speak out. It's all about conforming. This story shows there was a time when you could use your voice and be completely uncensored. It's a beautiful thing. In some ways, I see this as an anti-censorship movie."

Lemmons was thrilled when Cheadle agreed to take the part and become a producer. "When he's got the wig on and the clothes and the voice comes out of it, I don't see Don Cheadle, I see Petey," says Lemmons. "He wears this flamboyant clothing and he's just fabulous. There's this quality about Petey where he's always at the center of a whirlwind, and [Cheadle] totally captured that."

Also starring in the film is Taraji P. Henson ("Hustle & Flow") as Greene's girlfriend Vernell, while Martin Sheen, Cedric the Entertainer and Lemmons's husband, Vondie Curtis-Hall, all play characters at the radio station.

The film begins late in Greene's term at Lorton and is centered around his friendship with Dewey Hughes (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor of "Kinky Boots"). Hughes, then the program director at WOL, is the man who put Greene on the air and became his life-long friend. Very little film and tape remain from Greene's shows, according to Cheadle and Lemmons, though they were able to view and listen to some of it. A lot of the famous Petey-isms and Petey stories they learned from old newspaper clips. Like the infamous story of Greene's visit to the White House where maybe he stole a spoon or maybe he didn't. Or the fact that he liked to refer to himself as having a "PhD in poverty." How he liked to brag about overcoming protests at all-white Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda to his invitation to be commencement speaker.

They also got a lot of help from Hughes, who now lives in Los Angeles and served as a consultant on the film.

"Oh, my God, I'm in love with him," Lemmons says of Hughes, whose former wife is Cathy Hughes, the owner of Radio One. "He really moves me. He's a very beautiful, elegant, intelligent man. He has a certain presentation that is immaculate. It's a great contrast to Petey, who's flashy and coming apart at the seams all the time."

Cheadle says that it's been unique filming a movie about a "very male, brotherly relationship" through the lens of a female director. Lemmons, he says, sometimes sees things that would never have occurred to him. She laughs at that.

"When I went in to pitch myself as a director, I said that as a black woman, I know black men better than they know themselves," she says.

Most of the film was shot in Toronto, and the stop in D.C. was brief -- three days in town, with five scenes shot yesterday. One crew shot some local color (including the obligatory scene at Ben's Chili Bowl), while Lemmons and the leads shot at various locations around the Mall, including the Washington Monument and the carousel outside the Smithsonian.

Cheadle, who himself speaks up on issues, made the most of his scant time in the city, but he did it in that other time-honored Washington way: He set up meetings with the important and the powerful. Deeply concerned about the genocide in Darfur (he's making a documentary on the subject) -- he met Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Thursday. On Friday, he was late for an interview because he was with Sudanese rebel leader Minni Minnawi. He also spoke to a group at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Asked how successful these meetings were, the actor says, "No one's for genocide. But it's really the bureaucracy and the very real question and challenge of international diplomacy/pressure, especially at a time like this. There's a really high bar to vault."

It's the kind of careful, measured response that never would have passed Petey Greene's lips.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company