The film says talk to Petey Greene, but we say read Judge Ryan Keefer.
Our review of Talk To Me, published November 12th, 2007, is also available.
Never underestimate a man with something to say.
Every so often there's a film that serves as a bit of an awards push for its star, despite how unpalatable the subject matter might be. And in Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, you have a cigarette-smoking, alcohol-drinking ex-con, played by Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), one of the most underrated American actors right now. So does Talk to Me scream out either "Rent" or "Buy Me"?
Facts of the Case
Written by Michael Genet (She Hate Me) and Rick Famuyiwa (Brown Sugar), and directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou), the film covers the life of Greene from his last days in jail on an armed robbery sentence to his release into the arms of his longtime girlfriend Vernell (Taraji P. Henson, Hustle & Flow). In a chance meeting in prison, he encounters Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Children of Men) who quickly dismisses his talent. When he's released, he pickets the offices of WOL-AM radio in Washington, DC (where Hughes works), until Hughes relents and gives him a job as the morning disc jockey. The film follows Greene and the heights of fame that he would achieve until his death in 1984 at the age of 53 due to cancer.
Growing up in the Washington, DC suburbs, the February of my life coincided with the December of Petey Greene's, but that's not to say that I didn't hear about him long after he passed. In fact, I listened to the Howard Stern show frequently in the mornings on DC-101, long before anyone knew what satellite radio was. Listening to Howard was done much to the disapproval of my parents, and probably the reason why I turned out the way I did. But I digress. Stern took some of his cues from Greene's work, consciously or otherwise, and appeared on Greene's television show wearing blackface, with Greene's approval and support. And like Stern, Greene was not afraid to tell the truth, regardless of who it offended. One of his first acts on the air was to speak ill of Barry Gordy, something that was pretty bold to do in 1965, considering that Motown was "Hitsville, U.S.A.," and then some. Despite ruffling the feathers of the perceived black establishment, he was a voice of the new black man in America, saying things that many in the Washington, D.C. community believed, but he was fortunate to have a microphone in front of him to do it.
This might never have been more evident than during a key moment in American history. When Martin Luther King was shot, Greene went on the air that night, voicing the rage and frustration that many in Washington felt. Many others acted on that rage, burning and looting their neighborhood, both there and in other cities across the country. And when Greene tried to persuade the community to stop the violence, playing Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," it provides an extremely emotional moment that gives people who weren't around during that time a window into the emotions that night.
Sadly, for as charismatic a character that Greene was, and as talented an actor as Cheadle might be, Lemmons' direction seems to try and capture a lot of different aspects of Greene's life and the people who affect it, and to try to be as far reaching as possible while not having a lot of confidence to tell the story. A lot of different things are touched on that wind up becoming distractions. Hughes transformation from "pseudo Uncle Tom" to one who gets back to his roots in the projects and becomes "himself" is fine, but he has meetings with his younger brother Milo (Mike Epps, Roll Bounce) that one would assume would have some fruition but don't. There's also the matter of the film coming off as rather repetitive of other similar films where deejays become famous. You know, montages of people outside listening to the radio and such, or earlier on, Petey being given "one last chance" at his dream or risk losing it. Stuff like that makes it hard to completely enjoy the film despite what it offers. They also seem to be haphazard on details. I could have sworn they mentioned the Iran-Contra scandal in a separate montage, which was three years after Greene died.
Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, the VC-1 encoded transfer Universal offers is clear without being sharp. The foreground image works and is pretty clear, though skin tones aren't as distinguishable here, and image depth isn't really worth bragging about. Quite frankly, I liked the Dolby TrueHD soundtrack better, with songs from Sly Stone, Otis Redding and others sounding clear as a bell, despite this film which is mainly dialogue driven and center channel focused.
It's a bummer, the extras on either side of this combo disc are light. There are five deleted scenes (running about eight minutes total) that don't add anything to the feature, while in "Who Is Petey Greene?," the cast and crew discuss Greene's background, along with Hughes and his recollections of the film, and try to lump parallels into today. "Recreating P-Town" covers more of the production aspects of the film, along with hair and wardrobe.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Surprisingly there are quite a few recognizable names in the production. You've got Cheadle, Epps, Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now), and as a couple of other deejays at the station, there is Cedric the Entertainer (The Honeymooners) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (Broken Arrow). That's a reputable lineup of acting talent in this film, one that deserved better than what ultimately played out in the film.
Talk to Me is worth watching at the very least to learn about the life of one of the lesser known but perhaps equally important voices in the African American community. His voice was one of unabashed clarity and candor. But while his life and legend are memorable, the film tends to slightly diminish this. Moreover, with a lack of extras, it's not worth it that much for hardcore fans of the film to buy this thing.
Petey Greene gets a free pass from this court; his humor and personality are all you need in this report.
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Scales of Justice
• "Who is Petey Greene?"
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