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Not the real thing: Cheadle in Talk to Me.

Keep It Real


By John Rodat

Talk to Me

Directed 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 Ejiofor).

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.

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