Talk to Me

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Though thematically a biopic, Kasi Lemmons' third feature, Talk to Me, is most effective when eschewing the genres rise-and-fall mythmaking conventions to explore the intriguing issues of race, status, and celebrity through the tale of a groundbreaking 1960s African-American disc jockey, played by Don Cheadle.

Talk to Me focuses on Ralph Waldo Petey Greene Jr. (Don Cheadle), a combative ex-con who in the mid-1960s hustled his way into a job as a morning-show DJ in Washington, DC. Petey manages to convince WOL-AMs new program director Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) that he is the voice of the people, speaking truth to power at a time when the nations political and social upheaval are playing out in the citys backyard.

WOLs owner, E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen), is at first reluctant. He has no problem hiring African-American DJs (in fact, the station already boasts several top black talents), but hes concerned that Peteys more antagonistic on-air style will lose the station its license. But Dewey guesses correctly that Petey will inspire hundreds of listeners to call in, provoked and encouraged by his words, which will in turn raise the stations visibility.

Peteys fame grows right along with his and Deweys friendship, eventually leading to a business partnership. Dewey becomes Peteys manager, helping him land a TV show and stand-up tours. But Peteys insatiable distrust for authority and the status quo makes him progressively more disillusioned by the direction of his career, leaving him feeling like a commodity instead of a provocateur.

At its core, Talk to Me follows the typical arc of a biopic made about an entertainer. In these narratives, the protagonist starts off from humble origins, blessed with a talent that allows him to escape his dreary past. Soon, that talent helps him open doors to a better life, earning him widespread acclaim and popularity. But once hes climbed to the top of his field, inevitable personal failings emerge that knock him back down: addiction, womanizing, ego. These obstacles are eventually smoothed over in the films final act, where the protagonist reaches his later years with a certain amount of wisdom and a legacy worth saluting.

Petey Greenes story fits into that construction nicely perhaps too nicely. Screenwriters Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa instill the conventions with enough heart, but Talk to Me becomes increasingly predictable, although still entertaining.

Part of the reason we remain involved is Cheadles strong turn as Petey. In the past, Cheadle has been a reliable but somewhat dull presence on screen, looking for the right role that could cater to both his embodiment of unimpeachable moral certainty and his seldom-seen humorous side. Despite the serious performances hes best known for, such as his Oscar-nominated role in Hotel Rwanda, in “Talk to Me” he seems to be channeling his suave, loony thief from the Oceans Eleven films, giving Petey copious amounts of charisma, confidence, and mischief. The traditional biopic tries to canonize its subject, but Cheadle keeps Petey loose. Its a persuasive, overpowering performance that feels pleasingly down to earth as well.

Ejiofor has the trickier role to play as the uptight straight man to Peteys cocky, vulgar clown. But as the film moves into its second half and Dewey tries to make Petey a national star, the story intriguingly begins to shift, and Dewey emerges as the main character. Ejiofor shrewdly demonstrates Deweys self-consciousness about being a well-spoken, successful black man in an era where such a person was treated with suspicion in both the white and black communities. We get to witness the two sides of the mans personality, and Ejiofor captures the character's internal wrestling match, his desperate hunger to belong.

Talk to Me may be structurally schematic, but its two main characters are compelling enough that their problems offer some insights into the Civil Rights Era, keeping the films margins agreeably unpredictable.

Deweys compulsion to make Petey famous stems from his own issues with hero worship, which is far more interestingly portrayed than in the usual story about a pushy agent and his driven star. Unquestionably, Dewey shares Petey's disgust for America's often-corrupt white power structure, and yet he fears to speak out himself, perhaps hobbled by his own insecurity about being accepted in mainstream society. Consequently, he admires Petey for saying the things he cannot say himself.

Likewise, Peteys growing reluctance with the trappings of fame doesnt come across as whiny or immodest. Rather, the movie hints that from the outset he has been a talented talker who never fully could live up to the brash, supremely confident image that he had created for himself. Instead of reducing him to a symbol of Black America's fight for equality, Lemmons examines Petey as a conflicted figure, one with many faults and fierce convictions who almost achieved all of his goals before falling short.

As a final note, Taraji P. Hensons performance as Peteys horny, uncouth girlfriend Vernell should not be underrated or overlooked. Under the strict rules of biopics, the protagonists long-suffering lover usually gets pushed to the sidelines while he goes off to become famous and enjoy the company of loose women. Whether its indicative of reality or storytelling laziness, its an irritating clich, which is why Hensons Vernell is such fun. Shes almost as messed up and temperamental as Petey, and while she goes through her share of heartbreak in Talk to Me, shes no shrinking violet. As she did in Hustle & Flow, she turns a potentially one-note character into someone with a strong sense of integrity and devotion. Even when he cheats on her, you can understand why no woman in the world can compare in Peteys mind to Vernell.

Credits

Running time: 118 minutes

Director: Kasi Lemmons
Production companies: Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Mark Gordon Company, Pelagius Films
US distribution: Focus Features
Producers: Mark Gordon, Sidney Kimmel, Joe Fries, Josh McLaughlin
Executive producers: William Horberg, J. Miles Dale, Joey Rappa, Bruce Toll, Don Cheadle
Screenplay: Michael Genet, Rick Famuyiwa (story by Michael Genet)
Cinematography: Stephane Fontaine
Editor: Terilyn A. Shropshire
Production design: Warren Alan Young
Music: Terence Blanchard

Cast

Petey Greene (Don Cheadle)
Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor)
Vernell Watson (Taraji P. Henson)
E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen)
“Nighthawk” Bob Terry (Cedric the Entertainer)
Milo Hughes (Mike Epps)
Sunny Jim Kelsey (Vondie Curtis Hall)