I wish only good things for director Kasi Lemmons. And Cheadle’s performance is entertaining; it’s the main reason to buy a ticket. (Aside from Support-a-Sister politics, which I’m all for. So support the sister and buy a ticket!)
But this film is being way overpraised. White critics seem to love seeing an A-list black actor do the “brash, streetwise strut” thing... the “jive-talkin’... free-swinging braggadocio” thing... the “mouthy, swaggering, over-the-top” thing... the “fast-talking huckster” thing.
On the other hand, a prominent black critic – Armond White in the New York Press – attacked the movie bitterly, lumping “Talk to Me” with “Dreamgirls” and “Ray” as “the new cinematic chitlin’ circuit”... shallow and full of stereotypes. He says Cheadle’s Petey Greene reminded him of Tim Meadows in “The Ladies Man.” (Harsh but kinda true.)
Mr. White shit-talks (literally) the director’s previous films (“Eve’s Bayou” and “The Caveman’s Valentine”), suggesting that “Lemmons doesn’t know enough about [the] African-American experience to fill a chitlin’.”
My feelings are in line with those of Invisible Woman, the cinema blogger who wrote: “I feel bad for Don Cheadle and Kasi Lemmons...they tried to do something different and it didn’t quite work out...that’s OK guys, keep it movin’!” We’re supportive, but we ain’t fooling ourselves.
The big problem with “Talk to Me” is that it doesn’t dig deeply into Petey Greene as a real human being. He is written as an idea of a street player, all attitude and lip.
Weirdly, the film halfway through stops being about Petey’s adventures in broadcasting and becomes an old-fashioned show-biz fable about his rise and fall as a standup comic.
“Talk to Me” cares nothing about Petey Greene’s real role at WOL. For one thing, he never spun records. He wasn’t a morning-drive deejay, let alone a “pioneer shock jock” as Ms. Lemmons is trying to sell him. Petey hosted a weekend talk show.
But I guess that’s not sexy enough for Hollywood...
To learn about the actual Petey Greene, you need to read Lurma Rackley’s self-published book, “Laugh If You Like, Ain’t a Damn Thing Funny.” It includes extended quotes from the man himself, who died in 1984 – just short of age 53 – after a lifetime of hard drinking.
Very little of this book deals with Greene’s broadcasting career. Most of it is a hustler’s memoir, detailing his youthful delinquency, his prison-yard antics, his heroin addiction, and so forth.
But he does tell the tale of how he got started in radio. Inside Lorton Reformatory, Greene became friends with Sam Hughes, whose brother, Dewey Hughes, worked at WOL-AM. (Dewey is portrayed in the movie by Chiwetel Ejiofor.) I’ll let Petey take it from when he was released from prison:
PETEY GREENE: When I met Dewey at the station on Wisconsin Avenue, he wasn’t even a jockey or nothing. He was more or less of a handy man around WOL. But he was a ambitious cat, so in turn he used to work for days and nights, sometimes without even going home, and learning all he could about the machinery, the mechanics of radio.
When I went over to see him... I told him about the radio show I had in the reformatory. And I did some rhymes and he put them on a tape and he was impressed, you know. After Dewey cut the tapes of me, he played the tapes around in the station for the Vice President and General Manager, John Pace, a white man. ...
Dewey wasn’t a big man at the station but he got a chance to get involved in radio when a white boy left, called Sherwood Ross, who was public affairs director. Dewey got that job. At that time, the station was trying to go all-black. It was in the 60s and blacks were beginning to move.
When they gave Dewey that job, Dewey started doing a lot of innovative things, as opposed to just bringing on big people to be talking about the problems. It was the right time to bring on the little people, the welfare recipients and things like that. And I had started an organization called EFEC, Efforts from Ex-Convicts. And money was being allocated for the help of ex-offenders, welfare recipients and so on.
Dewey knew I could rap, so he, at that particular time, didn’t give me a show, but he would get me to bring on five or six ex-offenders. In fact, Dewey was doing a show of his own then. It was called ‘Speak Up.’ And he would bring us on and we would talk about the ex-offender problems and what was needed. Came on at 6 on Sunday evenings. ...
In late ’67, I started on the radio. Looking back on Dewey, Dewey was a very cunning guy. And he saw that I was very talented, and that I liked him. He saw I really, really liked him. And Dewey wanted to be a star himself.
I can understand. He was a handsome fellow, young, talk like a white boy. People who had never seen Dewey used to think he was white. They used to call him on the radio and think he was a white boy.
So, Dewey saw me as an asset. He started letting me come and sit with him on Sunday, so it would be him and me. He named the program, “Rappin’ with Petey Greene.” Dewey and I would be there and he would push the buttons and we would both talk. People started saying, “You don’t need that white boy on there with you, Petey. Why don’t you get that white guy off there?” ...
I’d say, “He’s not white.” But I had my confidence up and I knew I didn’t need Dewey there with me. And so he phased hisself out. The show got hot. ...
I used to bring guests in, but them people in the community... they always used to say, “You don’t need no guests. We like to talk to you by ourself.’ See, when I first started out, they used to call me up with they problems. “I got a boyfriend, Petey Greene, and my boyfriend, you know, he goes with my best girlfriend, Petey, what should I do?”...
One time I almost got in some trouble. A guy called me and said, “Hey man, this broad I got, everytime I look around she’s over there with another dude, and he act like he disrespect me.” I said, “Well, man, just get a gun and go kill that nigguh.”
Boy, I got in serious trouble. People at the station told me, “Petey, you got power. These people don’t just call you and ask you these questions just to be calling. These people believe in you, man. Somebody called and told us that you told a man to get a shotgun and kill another man.”
I didn’t say nothing like that again.