Television

Independent Lens: Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene

As Adjust Your Color recounts, Petey Greene used his groundbreaking radio and television talk shows to influence millions, winning two Emmy awards and varieties of adulation over the years.

Independent Lens

Airtime: Tuesday, 10pm ET
Cast: Chuck Brown, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marion Barry Jr., Dewey Hughes, Robert Hooks, Don Cheadle (narrator)
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene
Network: PBS
US release date: 2009-02-03
Website
Trailer
Amazon
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.

7


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.