Slide on in, adjust the color of your television, hole up and get ready to groove with Petey Greene’s Washington.
— Petey Greene
“I was down in Lorton with him,” says Chuck Brown. “He had such influence, he was such a strong guy. Me, I was more or less trying to be a musician.” Brown went on to become a musician of some fame and fortune — that is, “The Godfather of Go-Go.” Still, dressed in his signature wide brimmed hat and dark glasses, Brown remembers Petey Greene as the man with “influence.” He speaks for most everyone who knew him, or thought they did.
Indeed, through his groundbreaking radio and television talk shows, Greene touched millions, winning two Emmy awards and varieties of adulation. “He was like the ghetto jester, if you will, the original rapper,” observes a friend in Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene, airing 3 February as part of Independent Lens. Greene’s route to influence was, by all accounts, circuitous. Born in 1931 to Ralph Greene and Maggie Floyd, Greene was raised by his grandmother, Margaret “Aunt Pig” Floyd, when his con artist father spent years shuffling in and out of prison and his prostitute mother was “involved in a manslaughter case.”
As a dispenser of street wisdom on the radio, Greene would go on to commend Aunt Pig’s moral fiber and disciplinary efforts, but as a young man, he left home to join the Army and fight in Korea. Dishonorably discharged in 1953 for drug abuse, he returned to DC with a heroin addiction, dealing drugs to support his habit. Sent to Lorton, a notorious DC area prison, he soon found his calling. He persuaded the warden to allow him a few hours each day on the in-house radio, where he entertained and educated his listeners. (Here the film, lacking actual images of the then -unknown Greene, shows generic prison footage: men in jumpsuits and walking long hallways.) On his release in 1966, he made his way to DC’s WOL offices, where he convinced his future manager Dewey Hughes to give him a chance on air.
Much of this and the rest of Greene’s story will be familiar to viewers of Kasi Lemmons’ Talk to Me, in which Don Cheadle (who narrates this documentary) and Chiwetel Ejiofor played Greene and Hughes. In Loren Mendell’s documentary, Hughes repeats the story of his first encounter with the irrepressible Greene (he also mentions Vernell Watson, though not by name, the audacious girlfriend played by Taraji P. Henson in Lemmons’ film). Cheadle notes here that he soon “became known as Petey Greene, the talking machine,” lauded for speaking for and to a population typically considered voiceless. As former DC Mayor Marion Barry puts it, Greene was “like a spokesperson for the ex-offender community.” Greene would come to be known as a community activist, advocate for free speech, prison reform, and civil rights, as well as a noisy protester against the Vietnam war.
In this capacity, as Adjust Your Color shows, he was rowdy and loud, earning a reputation as a purveyor of truth in a city renowned for feigning and dissembling. The documentary’s liberal use of Greene’s TV appearances — seated in his wicker chair, holding forth on local, political, and personal questions — helps to make the case for his influence on future generations of “shock jocks” (Howard Stern appears here from an episode of Petey Greene’s Washington, in blackface and pretending difficulty using the n-word), as well as his immediate world (men he mentored who appear here include sportscaster James Brown and Sugar Ray Leonard, who appeared on Greene’s show at age 14). The film recalls the famous story of Greene’s show on the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, when he helped to calm angry DC citizens. Sandra Butler says, “That he could convince a mob to stop mobbing: it was just powerful.”
In years following, as Greene’s local legend grew, Hughes hoped to bring him “to another level,” that is, a national stage; here he retells the story of Petey “standing me up” on the Tonight Show, traveling to New York and then getting so drunk that he was unable to appear for his ostensible big break. Greene, Hughes muses, had to “do it his way,” which meant representing his community before all else. When he spoke with DC politicians — local and national, as in the case of President Carter’s assistant Midge Costanza, a classic interview, part of which is included here — he did so with attitude and his own sort of grace. Hughes says, “He had no limits, as if to say, ‘Look I’m gonna keep making people feel uncomfortable, because if you feel uncomfortable about what I’m saying, it proves my point: you’re a fake and you’re a phony.'”
Though it’s produced by Greene’s nephew Terence Greene, Adjust Your Color is noticeably short on interviews with his children or other relatives (thus reintroducing a concern the family made public regarding Lemmons’ film, that it focused on Hughes’ story more than Greene’s). A brief scene shows Greene seated on his sofa at home, interviewing his daughter Petra and son Ralph Waldo III. Initially looking “uncomfortable,” the kids are soon smiling and articulating the futures they hope to live. While Ralph says he hasn’t yet decided on his career (he’s feeling “in between basketball or a lawyer”), Petra describes her dream to be a model. “I like models,” she explains, “I look up to models. They are good, and I like to dress up in clothes.” Greene, who repeatedly extolled the virtue of money, as power and a means to influence (“You can’t do nothing if you broke”), smiles and turns to the camera, urging his children to pursue multiple goals. It’s the sort of life he lived, and for which he is admired to this day.