Watch Your Language
I’ll tell it to the hot, I’ll tell it to the cold. I’ll tell it to the young, I’ll tell it to the old. I don’t want no laughin’, I don’t want no cryin’, and most of all, no signifyin’.
This is a man’s world,
But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl.
—James Brown, “A Man’s World”
Following Martin Luther King Jr.‘s assassination, the streets of Washington DC erupted. The scene, fiery and chaotic, similar to other cities across the US at the time, appears in Talk to Me through the eyes of Petey Greene (Don Cheadle). Shocked by the news, he stands outside the WOL-AM office where he’s a DJ and surveys the turmoil. Figures barely discernable run past, papers fly through smoke, windows break across the street, a car blows up. Petey pauses, then heads back inside, where he takes the mic and starts doing what he does best: he starts talking.
It’s a turning point in Kasi Lemmons’ smart, enthralling film. Part biopic, part portrait of an era, it presents an ongoing dilemma—what does it mean to be “black enough” and how does “talk” shape the question and answers? Petey has just had an awful fight inside the office, stemming from a perfectly petty and typical conflict over sex and prerogatives. Following her discovery of Petey with another girl, his girlfriend Vernell (Taraji P. Henson) shoots back by having sex with his coworker, the smooth-talking, pimp-suit-wearing, pair-of-wolfhounds-owning Nighthawk Bob Terry (Cedric the Entertainer). The showdown in the radio station is broadly physical and plainly inane, the two men throwing punches and falling down, furniture crashing and onlookers squealing.
It all looks even sillier when boss E. G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen) tearfully delivers the news about Dr. King. Horrified and maybe even ashamed of their trifling self-concern, the boys break up the fight and Petey takes the decision to go on air, to talk out his rage, fearfulness, and despair, and especially to invite his fiercely loyal listeners to talk with him. “I went to jail,” he says earnestly, “because I was a knucklehead. Dr. King went to jail for what he believed in. Put your anger away.” And with that, Petey’s trajectory seems changed.
The operative term here is “changed.” For Petey’s fate is set, according to the film, by the complex circumstances that make him. Charismatic, controversial, and consistently defiant, Petey is presented here as a painfully self-aware hustler and con as well as a “prophet of the streets,” in the words of program director Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Emphatically representative of his time (1960s and ‘70s) and place (the Chocolate City), Petey’s influence appears both urgently local and, in hindsight, far-reaching. The film uses Petey and Dewey’s friendship to set up and then break down what seems an easy opposition: Dewey calls Petey a “miscreant” and Petey calls Dewey “Mr. Tibbs,” or again, “nothing but another white man with a tan.” And yet both come together to expand the possibilities of talk radio as a means to “speak for and unite a community.”
The film begins when Petey is incarcerated at Virginia’s Lorton Penitentiary (convicted of armed robbery), circa 1966. Dewey comes to visit his brother Milo (Mike Epps), who urges him to hire Petey, the electrifying prison DJ. Dewey is skeptical, as he both resents and judges what he terms his brother’s apparent moral failure, but eventually hires Petey on his release. As the host of “Rapping with Petey Greene,” Petey plays James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and Sam Cooke, and in between, calls out Berry Gordy as a pimp, relates his own raunchy escapades, and invites listeners to vent about “the system,” but also to imagine other options, to see themselves as powerful, to understand “voice” as a means, multiple and dynamic, to collective and individual identity. Petey says talk is “the only thing I’m good at that don’t involve breaking the law,” and invites frank conversation on air about politics, sex, race, and popular culture, calling himself “a nigger in America telling it like it is, telling the truth.”
The radio show is his platform on the occasion of Dr. King’s death. Though he admits that, like his audience, he wants “revenge,” he also seeks another way. “That’s your city,” he says of the burning streets, inviting listeners to attend a free concert by James Brown the following evening instead of destroying their neighborhood. The concept works, but Petey shows up to emcee the event late and drunk. The crowd adores him but you (through Dewey’s eyes) also see the battle that comprises Petey’s soul: as he leaves the stage and the Brown facsimile (Herbert L. Rawlings, Jr.) begins performing “Say It Loud,” Petey pukes and staggers.
It is Dewey and Petey’s relationship that shapes Talk to Me, which leaves Vernell, unfortunately, to play their go-between and interpreter. (Her perspective would constitute an entirely other movie.) Plainly imperfect even as he’s both selfless and ambitious, Petey reluctantly agrees to Dewey’s career plan, at first enjoying the attention, the swank new apartment, the access to liquor, clothes, and women. But he also worries. His self-doubt has to do with personal misgivings but also, more deeply, in the very structural oppressions he talks about on air. The film punctuates his story with TV images of anti-Vietnam war protests and Black Panthers, Lyndon Johnson and Shirley Chisholm. Dewey sees the chance to change the “system” from within, rejecting Petey’s vision of genuine and only blackness: “Negroes,” says Dewey as he displays his own considerable skills as a pool hustler, “always think that if you speak correct and wear anything other than clown suits, you’re not real.” Dewey’s role model, he confesses, is Johnny Carson; he believes he can reach people and prosper, help shape a community and create a better world.
To this end, Dewey encourages Petey to greater and greater visibility—a local TV show (Petey Greene’s Washington), a live comedy routine, and even an appearance on The Tonight Show. But Petey is conflicted, unwilling to immerse himself in the system he sees as fundamentally flawed and racist. Petey resists Dewey’s faith in “the whole world,” remaining dedicated to his community, the same community that Dewey, when riled, calls “low-life.”
At last Petey has a profound, proto-Dave Chappelle-ian moment on Carson’s stage. He looks into the studio audience and ends Dewey’s dream: “I look out here and all I see is a room full of white folks waiting for some nigger jokes.” The silence—the “dead air” that Dewey has long warned him against—is stunning. The scene combines a life’s worth of disappointment, anger, and self-defining resistance. Petey knows full well what he’s doing when he speaks.