Don Cheadle’s time has finally arrived. While this may seem a bit contradictory, considering the number of years he has been producing good work, the truth remains that this award winning performer has always been on the very fringes of fame. Unlike other members of the growing and influential African American Hollywood community, Cheadle has concentrated most of his talent and time on smaller, independent fare. While he’ll show up in the occasional mainstream movie (Crash, the Oceans’ films), he tends to be more comfortable in low profile, outsider efforts. As a result, he never seems to get the universal acclaim he so desperately deserves. Consistently great in everything he does, he has yet to find the one role that will spark the superstar celebrity that his abilities triumphantly promise – until now. With Kasi Lemmon’s sensational Talk to Me, the man has finally found a legitimate breakout project.
Cheadle essays the role of real life hustler/Washington DC radio icon Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene. After a stint in prison, he pursues an on-air DJ job from WOL’s uptight station manager Dewey Hughes (an unrecognizable Chiwetel Ejiofor). At first, neither Hughes nor the station’s owner E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen) want anything to do with Petey. He’s loud, obnoxious, opinionated and far too ‘ghetto’ for their upscale ideals. But Hughes comes to see that there is a personality “of the people” in this motor-mouthed maverick, and eventually gives Petey his shot. After some momentary jitters – and a scathing attack on Berry Gordy – the ex-con becomes WOL’s marquee name. Audiences flood his music/talk show with calls, and Petey never lets them down. We follow Hughes and his new star through troubling times (the death of Dr. Martin Luther King) and unimaginable triumphs (TV shows, nightclub appearances). We soon learn however, that such success was not part of Petey’s plan. His frequent bouts with the bottle verify his tortured, tenuous soul.
As biopics go, Talk to Me is really nothing new. It takes a previously unknown personality of some major prominence (time is harsh to memorable individuals) and maneuvers through his story with an engaging combination of myth and reality. In the case of Petey Greene, Kasi Lemmon’s intriguing storyline avoids his stint in Korean and his discharge from the military on drug charges. It also passes over a great deal of his work as an activist for the United Planning Organization and ex-criminal support groups. It does gloss over his love life and fails to mention his four children. And yet, like any good motion picture, the director finds the proper spirit and vibe to make us forget the fudging. Indeed, no matter the factual flaws here, Talk to Me generates so much period appropriate juice and evocative energy that you can’t help but feel caught up in the events transpiring before your eyes. No matter the lack of meticulous authenticity, this is a marvelous cinematic statement.
And it all starts with Cheadle. Ever since Robert DeNiro introduced the notion of metaphysical mimicry as a means of playing a real life person – literal human alteration to capture a person’s actual presence as when he took on the role of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull - actors have decided that the exterior (Monster, Ray) is more important then the interior. Wisely, our star doesn’t try to change his look to match that of Greene, and even as time passes by, Cheadle remains more or less the same. It’s as if Lemmons is asking us to accept the idea of Petey Greene more than the real man himself, and it’s a bold decision. It allows us to avoid all the make-up machinations that can come with such a cinematic stunt (even today, 26 years later, DeNiro’s ‘fat man’ LaMotta is jarring) while truly appreciating the individual within. Similarly, Ejiofor’s Hughes goes through only minor transformations in order to achieve his overall character arc – a man learning there is more to life than Johnny Carson and his Tonight Show style. Together they form the core of what is a very strong character-based piece.
But Lemmons deserves credit as well for creating a perfect ‘60s period feel without going overboard with the era appropriate iconography or symbols. Sure, the wardrobe and attitudes reflect the turbulent times well, and when asked to include some cultural benchmarks, the director chooses a few brave ones indeed. The entire section where the assassination of Dr. King morphs into an all night radio plea by Petey for calm is brilliant, since it includes not only the passion, but the principle behind the notorious DC riots. But then Lemmons goes one step further, and includes a conciliatory concert featuring James Brown to bring the anecdote full circle. Before the performance, Petey (as MC) arrives incredibly drunk and everyone fears he will make the already tight tensions erupt into chaos. Instead, Cheadle delivers a slamdunk monologue which wows both the gathered spectators and Hughes. It’s a perfect illustration of the times, the temperament, and the talent of our amazing main characters.
Lemmons is also excellent at getting the interpersonal element to crackle with vivid life. The scenes between Cheadle and Ejiofor are so kinetic you can see the energy surging between the actors, and whenever Petey and his main squeeze Vernell (played with flawless flirtatiousness by Taraji P. Henson) are on screen, they appear intimate without ever showing it sexually. Some will argue that, by avoiding his obvious faults, Lemmons misses some excellent opportunities for conflict and drama. Yet Talk to Me is the kind of film that argues against constantly requiring confrontations to create gravitas. Had the movie degenerated into a booze soaked Lost Weekend with Petey frequently undermining his career by withdrawing into a fifth, we’d grow weary of its depressive stance. Even worse, it would lessen the parallel rise of Hughes as his own man. Indeed, one of Lemmons’ most fascinating tricks is getting us to forget about the stuffed shirt radio exec, only to find ourselves intrigued when he comes into his own – as a man and as a messenger.
There are times when Talk to Me underperforms, however, buoyed by amazing soundtrack selections to keep it grooving along. Once we reach the sequences where Petey becomes a media star – doing stand-up, causing scandal on his own local TV show – we tend to find the film grasping for relevance. The onstage snippets frequently sound like Richard Pryor rip-offs while the few moments of bravado broadcasting are a tad repetitive. It all leads to a revelatory appearance on Hughes’ dream destination, The Tonight Show, and as well as she does at recreating the look and feel of the classic gabfest, Talk to Me’s script really fails to fully argue how important this moment really was – for either character. Instead, what eventually happens feels anticlimactic, as does the entire subplot involving Hughes and his hatred for his incarcerated brother.
Still, all minor misgivings aside, Talk to Me is a thoroughly enjoyable – and sometimes emotional – experience. It gives us insight into the importance of minority voices circa the late ‘60s/early ‘70s and presents Don Cheadle with the tour de force role that will probably earn him serious awards consideration come end of the year backtracking. There will be those who point out that this fine performer has more than his fair share of accolades, but there is something different about his turn here. Petey Greene was a man who, deep down, wasn’t concerned with being flamboyant or famous. He just wanted to be heard. What Cheadle shows us is how amazing it is to finally find an outlet for said voice…and how horrible it is when celebrity steps up and starts adding on demands. It’s the sad conclusion to what is, generally, an uplifting and soulful experience.