the real thing: Cheadle in Talk to Me.
By John Rodat
by Kasi Lemmons
By all evidence, the ex-con, acti- vist and radio-and-TV personality
Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene was quite a character. He’s been
cited as an early influence on such “shock jocks” as Howard
Stern and Don Imus; and Talk to Me, a nominal biopic,
would have you believe that, but for some quirks of temperament
and fate, Petey could have been the next Richard Pryor.
A little bit of hasty Internet research backs up the movie’s
claim that an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 mourners attended
his 1984 memorial service in Washington, D.C.; and a YouTube
search yields a clip from Greene’s regionally popular TV show
in which he gives a watermelon-eating lesson that Pryor might
have been happy to call his own. The same search, though,
reveals some of the screenplay’s omissions, fabrications and
distortions of the facts of Greene’s life. Some are minor,
and all fit easily into a cynic’s understanding of how the
sausage is made. But, still, it’s a problematic irony that
a film featuring a character who can’t be changed—who is,
for better or worse, only and always himself—would take such
liberties with biography.
We first meet Petey (Don Cheadle) in Lorton penitentiary,
where he’s serving time for armed robbery. He’s a loudmouth
and a showboat, a charming, vulgar clown manning the mic of
the prison’s rudimentary radio station. Director Kasi Lemmons
gives us a shot of a row of marching prisoner’s feet, all
clad in cheap canvas sneakers until—wait for it—one pair of
scarlet alligator shoes struts past. The early establishment
of Petey’s character is part Good Morning, Vietnam,
part Stripes. We’ve seen this kind of antihero before.
And we’ve seen the likes of his foil, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel
Dewey is an uptight and ambitious black radio executive, who
identifies more with Johnny Carson (from whom, he says, he
learned to walk, talk and dress) than with his incarcerated
older brother. When, during a begrudging visit to said brother,
Petey approaches him to hustle a promise of a job, he responds
with undisguised scorn—and, of course, thinly veiled self-loathing.
Dewey is, in Talk to Me’s dynamic, a man too distant
from his inner field nigger.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers’ desire to link the two men
in a yin-yang tension of assimilation and rebellion makes
both seem stock. According to the reports of peers,
the real Dewey Hughes was not an executive at the radio station,
but a kind of handyman who worked his way up to an on-air
position; and Greene was not dependent on Hughes for his success,
as he was already a prominent activist with a community following
before being asked to participate in Hughes’ program.
But the filmmakers wanted Greene simpler than that, seemingly.
In one scene, Greene self-destructs during a potentially star-making
appearance on The Tonight Show by insulting
the white audience; in real life, it’s reported that Greene
blew off the invitation to appear altogether. In their attempts
to make Greene seem raw, almost elemental, they have rendered
him cartoonish and clichéd.