Sunday, July 29, 2007

The real Petey Greene

In the new movie “Talk to Me,” Don Cheadle is generating much buzz as Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, Jr., the real-life D.C. street hustler who became a local media star in the 1960s and ’70s.

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.

18 comments:

S.O.L. said...

Great interview, UBM. But how'd you do at the tourney last night???

Undercover Black Man said...

I'm gonna post on that a little later... ;^)

justjudith said...

david: do you think the movie would be different had it been an independent? just a theory. anytime a studio is involved there's a way it has to play to get made. i haven't seen it yet but one of my friends loved it.

Undercover Black Man said...

By all means, justjudith, please see and judge for yourself. I'd love to hear your take on it.

I don't know about the studio vs. independent angle. For me, if something comes out corny, I kinda attribute it to the sensibilities of the storyteller.

susie said...

I really liked Eve's Bayou but I think I was watching it with an emphasis on the female experiences and loving the cinematography.

That said, I agree that these movies can be two dimensional when it comes to telling the stories of people's lives. They seem to get caught in the fashion and music of the period and tell the character's stories in the space that's left.

Of course Devil in a Blue Dress is one of those movies that I could watch over and over, but I love Walter Mosley's storytelling and Don Cheadle killed as Mouse.

I'll probably see this movie if it's still in theaters when I can get to one, and I'll definitely check out the book. Thanks for pointing me to it.

Undercover Black Man said...

Susie: It's one of those books that's great for picking up little turns of phrase, generational slang and colloquial rhythms to use in script dialogue.

I bet a lot of "vanity press" books could be useful that way.

Anonymous said...

While reading Armond White can be so much fun, even addictive, you sometimes want to put a hand to his forehead to check for a fever; there is a heartbreaking quality to his film passion. I stopped reading him some time ago. He tired me out, and I almost always wanted to see the films he held in total contempt.
-Renee

Undercover Black Man said...

Renee: You said that beautifully.

Anonymous said...

I think it hurts the mail ego that that such a great movies was made by a sista...if it had been any true life movie by a man the reviews would have been different - Peety whether exagarated or not was a man of influence...how many black icons do we see in movies...not so many...instead of embracing the memories we crtic...go ahead sista and shine...two thumbs up from me...

Michael said...

After a bit of investigating, I think all who would like to know more about the petey greene story should look to the dewey hughes element. Find out who katherine liggins hughes was and how she shaped events and you will see that in conjunction to petey's testimonial given here, dewey was most likely a man with a plan and screwed his way to the top.(if you beleive that he was actually a janitor at one time). Then also take into account the fact that it was dewey's wife that also had a controversial show at a very early time in the radio stations history. I cant tell who came first, petey or kathy. anywho, there is a lot more there than meets the eye. thats for sure.

Zenny said...

At times I thought I was watching a Black Implotation Film (An imploding explotation?) ... kind of like The Black Man's version of Austin Powers.
Hey, it did have some fun times.
~ White Guy in Nashville

Anonymous said...

I must say that I do not agree with you being so critical of this movie. Understanding that the industry is about making money, that's all. It brings to the light some important people that contributed to or has had profound impact on todays society. ie: Carl Brashear, Joe Clark, Frank Lucas. It sparks the quest for knowledge. I would have never known about Petey or anyone else without it being brought to my attention.

xqst_mrs_wms. said...

I think it's very sad that the movie is getting such harsh criticism. i thought it was moving and it served its purpose. i knew nothing about petey greene before this movie and have to admit that i spent more than 3 hours on the internet researching petey, dewey and cathy and i certainly wouldn't have thought to do that without the film.

consider this, black film makers have a hard enough time as is it getting good films on the silver screen. if we did our job as a community and came out and supported our films, we would make it easier for black produced films to get made.

instead we criticize, ridicule and judge each other with a standard that i'm sure we reserve only for ourselves. it's a shame really, but hey, that's what we do, behave shamefully. and we really should evolve and do better for each other.

i think the movie was excellent, whether is 100% factual or not.

Anonymous said...

Having grown up in the DC area in the 60s and 70s I thought the movie was great. I remember Petey and WOL radio. I didn't remember all the facts, but the movie stirred alot of memories. I remember listening the the Nighthawk in the evenings.

justhinking said...

I disagree with your comments of not seeing the "real human being" Petey Greene in the movie. First, you have to remember, it's a movie that is required to tell a story within 2-3 hours. Based on the story line, the viewer has to read into the characters. Knowing what he came out of and certain statements that were made as to why he was even desiring to be a deejay helps you to analyze the character of the "real" Petey Greene. You had to see that he was a man who wanted to encourage his people (but kept it real). You could see that he really was a behind the scenes person (didn't need to be seen); but, was pushed out there by Dewey Hughes. This is someone who wasn't completely sure of himself outside of the radio station (as he used drinking as his crutch even though he had what appeared to be everything going for him)...he just wanted to share his thoughts from life's lessons with the people. It was an excellent movie and I unfortunately didn't see it at the box office but waited until it came on cable. I would have definitely been satisfied with the purchase of a $10 ticket to support this project. Watch it again and dissect his character...make the necessary conclusions according to the time (60's thru 80's), jail time, drinking, he didn't know how to do anything else.

And, we all know that no matter what the race is, Hollywood distorts the facts of everything. But, as a race, we should be thankful that at least this door was open for more research and more enlightment into our history. Not just focusing on the negative!!

Anonymous said...

I put the movie in my Netflix queue because my friends from DC said it was a good story about a real dude. I'm 41 years old, born and raised down south and never heard of Petey Greene. Now I do, thanks to the movie...not from the movie itself, but because of everything that I've looked up and read about him since.

I don't think that movies should always be so ambitious as to portray every aspect of a subject...regardless of they are studio or indie, hack or savant, movies made with this goal as it's premise often end up crowded and aimless...documentaries being an exception.

If you'd preferred a film that's a character study of Petey Greene, then that's a project still available.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post. I loved this movie. Loved the cast and the acting. Living in DC, it was cool to see some of the landmarks, like Ben's Chili Bowl, on screen. I'm not a native but he seems to be quite a hero in these parts. I don't know that some of your views are quite fair. I think with these sorts of things you have to look at the big picture. NO biopic is accurate if you get down to it. From Lady Sings the Blues to What's Love Got to Do With It, all of them take an over the top amount of liberties when it comes to storytelling. I think the goal of movies like this (aside from making paper) is to get folks interested in the figures explored. After I saw Talk to Me, I bought the movie, went out on You Tube to find clips of Petey Greene, and Googled for articles on him - which is how I found this site. So, i would not know anything about this man had it not been for this movie. If we expect 100 percent accuracy with these movies none of them would be made. I think most of them are little more than a wa of introducing little known figures to the general public.

SoulBoogieAlex said...

I thought the film was great and very confronting. The liberties the director took with the truth helped the film. Especially Petey's fictionalized appearance at the Tonight Show. It forces the viewer to ask himself the uncomfortable question if he was indeed laughing with him, or at him.

Movie reality is a tricky thing. Over the course of two hours it is near impossible of doing a dramatized portrait of an actual person that stays true to all the complexities of said person. Movies are always both condensed and souped up reality. I do not think that it is possible to do a bio-pic without creating a stereo type to some degree. I Walk the Line for example was a stereo type of Johnny Cash with a Hollywood sauce. It didn’t do the actual man justice, but it was good entertainment.

Talk to Me is more than just good entertainment. Talk to Me asks uneasy questions. Talk to me is food for thought on how we use language, how we classify our fellow man on the basis of his or her background and most importantly, it forces us to review some of our own prejudices.