'Talk to Me': The Authentic Voice of D.C.

Don Cheadle stars in Kasi Lemmons'
Don Cheadle stars in Kasi Lemmons' "Talk to Me," a Focus Features release. (Stephane Fontaine - Focus Features)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007

Presidents come and go, as do parties, issues, wars, crises, hostesses and even movie critics, but for the longest time, one thing in Washington was solid as the pillars at Treasury: This was Petey Greene's town. He stayed, he lasted, he endured, and only death moved him along.

Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, talk show host, community activist, TV star ("Petey Greene's Washington"), had a big, fast, funny mouth, and he rode it a long way, from prison to fame.

Now, "Talk to Me," with two great actors, tells that story, and it makes you feel the joy people experienced in the wash of his raucous, truth-saying humor (for a sample, check out "How to Eat Watermelon" on YouTube), but also his wisdom and his calm. And many mourned his early death at 55 (in 1984): More than 8,000 people stood outside in a cold Washington January to get a last look at the man.

The movie, directed by Kasi Lemmons (most remember her "Eve's Bayou" with pleasure; some remember her as Clarice Starling's roommate in "The Silence of the Lambs"), re-creates those pre-Internet days when AM radio was the weapon of mass communication, hair was big, attitudes were all screechy and in your face, and the African American community was searching for a voice of authenticity.

It took two to bring it to them. There was Petey, but also his discoverer, his mentor, his first merchandiser, the man who saw the potential and the reality in the ex-con's raspy voice. In the film, Petey is played by the great Don Cheadle, in another one of his chameleon-like impressions, where he becomes someone entirely new, someone we've never seen before. His enthusiast is played by the Englishman Chiwetel Ejiofor, of many movies of late; "Dirty Pretty Things" was his breakthrough.

The movie, a conventional biopic without flashbacks, stream of consciousness or fancy storytelling tropes, begins with Petey out in Lorton, after an armed-robbery conviction. He has somehow talked his way -- talk being his main gift -- into a gig as the prison's DJ, going out over the prison radio system, where his realism and rude street humor light up (yet calm down) the inmates. One of them is the bad son of an otherwise prosperous family; he invites his brother, the good son, Dewey Hughes (Ejiofor) out for a taste of Petey's stylings. Dewey is a program exec for Washington R & B station WOL.

Of such breaks are overnight successes born -- not. Dewey gives him the old showbiz brush-off: "Look me up when you get out," which means " Don't look me up when you get out." But Petey doesn't get it.

Or maybe Petey does get it and only pretends he doesn't. See, what Petey has is street guile. He knows when to play dumb, when to pretend not to get it, when to leverage his color against the machine, when to be good, when to be outrageous, just where the line is. That's what's so terrific about Cheadle's performance: He dials into the hustler's ability to invent himself as he goes along, completely inhabiting a new persona.

And how does Petey get out of Lorton early? He talks a suicidal con down from the roof, saving a life and, more to the warden's liking, an administrative hassle and a scandal. As Petey tells someone later, "Talking him down was easy. It took six months to talk him up."

Petey heads straight for WOL, which is in its own crisis. The old tones of R&B are no longer provoking the community, for the community is changing -- it's becoming self-aware, it wants its rage and isolation expressed, and smooth-talking baritones who sound like cellos soaked in Courvoisier don't cut it.

The times are so right for Petey and his real street voice, but the people standing between him and the microphone haven't a clue. Led by tone-deaf afternoon talk jock Sunny Jim Kelsey (a smooth croonin' Vondie Curtis-Hall) and a totally clueless chief executive, E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen, doing dumbfounded fabulously), WOL is headed straight into the ground. Lemmons has fun evoking a supposedly hip group of whites and blacks who almost comically just don't get it. The only one who sees an out is Ejiofor's Hughes, and even he doesn't catch on right away.

It takes Petey's street demonstrations to finally show Hughes the light, to see that Petey has that weird thing that sails through the airwaves, a personality, a believability, a voice.

And so one day, Kelsey and Sonderling are "accidentally" locked in their offices, Dewey takes Petey into the studio, and the rest, as they say, is history.

That's not necessarily a good thing, for the first crisis -- and the most powerful passage in the film -- charts Petey's long midnight of the soul the evening Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and 14th Street went aflame. The film makes the point that Petey was one of the strong voices for reason and calm that dangerous night, and if some people died, a lot more didn't because of him.

The best shot in the sequence shows Petey coming out the next morning and seeing the city -- Toronto stands in for Washington, except for a few inserts -- the wreckage, rubble, debris through smoke, as if civilization itself has self-destructed. Cheadle manages to convey Petey's outrage, his grief and his melancholy in one complex expression.

But the movie is mainly built around the Greene-Hughes relationship, stating the larger point that nobody makes it alone. Petey was in some sense Hughes's creation; the more sophisticated man had access to the machinery by which Petey could become a star, and the movie -- and particularly the two actors -- give a good account of this touchy, ego-driven, pride-filled relationship.

Of course, it was over too early. Petey died young, cut down by cancer, his work started, not finished. The movie is a tribute to a truth, however: Talent and guts can get you farther than you think, and you don't even have to sell out to make it.

Talk to Me (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for pervasive profanity and some sexual content.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company