3½ stars (out of four)
Blessedly free of the usual biopic freight and sanctimony, the exuberant new film "Talk to Me" has a great subject and a great actor working in tandem, reminding audiences that once upon a time media personalities used to fight The Man, not be The Man.
Don Cheadle plays Washington radio and TV star Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene Jr., who parlayed his time as a prison deejay (good behavior helped him shave some time off a 10-year sentence for armed robbery) into a fabulously unlikely career as a regional media star and Black Power activist. If you want a slice of the real Greene, check out this YouTube clip: youtube.com/watch?v=2-eitsutpOc. It shows Greene in 1982 doing one of his talk show riffs on the subject of how to eat watermelon. The clip reveals an edgy, try-anything comic streak, fully aware of racial stereotypes and politics. But Greene, who died of cancer in 1984 and whose funeral drew thousands, was neither clown nor fool (though he was certainly self-destructive).
His story is novel in part because of its size. Most cinematic biographies focus on big fish in huge ponds, rather than big fish in medium-sized ones. While "Talk to Me" may have trouble being heard in the din of the summer blockbuster season, director Kasi Lemmons' film stays tuned to its own wavelength and true to its subject. And if there's any justice, Cheadle's in line for his second Oscar nomination.
The story begins in the mid-'60s with Greene in prison, honing his broadcasting skills, working the turntable, talking about life behind bars and what it takes to scratch "another day off the wall." One visiting day he meets the prosperous brother of a fellow inmate. The convict's brother is WOL-AM program director Dewey Hughes, an upright, tight-lipped citizen who appears to have walked straight off the set of "In the Heat of the Night" or "To Sir, With Love." He's played by the excellent British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (pronounced "Chew-it-tell Edge-oh-for"), so good in Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things," among others.
In their brief meeting Greene tells Hughes he'll be hitting him up for a job once he gets out of prison, and Hughes says sure, see you then, never expecting a second meeting. But there is a second meeting, a memorable one: Free and hungry, Greene practically demands an on-air shot at WOL, and gets it, thereby ruffling the feathers of longtime deejays Nighthawk (Cedric the Entertainer) and the Uncle Tom-ish Sunny Jim (Vondie Curtis Hall, husband of director Lemmons). Screenwriters Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa turn "Talk to Me" into a clever assessment of African-American personality clashes, career options and crossroads, much of it unfolding in the milieu of the workplace comedy.
You know where a lot of "Talk to Me" is going. You sense Greene will push his luck, speak his mind and cause the station owner (played by Martin Sheen) to sputter at one point: "We're a respectable R&B station!" You detect Greene and Hughes will knock heads in one scene and reconcile in the next, as the two men cement their longtime business relationship, with Hughes acting as Greene's manager.
Unexpectedly, though, this central friendship between two very different men, an ex-con and a Sidney Poitier exemplar of class, becomes one of the most interesting relationships in any film this year. As Greene's media star rises, it is Hughes who develops the taste for greater and wider success. At one point Hughes tells Greene that he learned to "walk with confidence" from his idol, Johnny Carson. It's fate, then, that Hughes secures a wary, chemically addled Greene a booking on "The Tonight Show" that turns out to be disastrous.
It's a pleasure to see Cheadle slip under the skin of this fast-talking scoundrel with a reckless streak and a very funny girlfriend (Taraji P. Henson as a former "shake dancer"). And the grave, imposing Ejiofor proves he can do both comedy and drama, never forcing either. Director Lemmons did the rather stiff Southern melodrama "Eve's Bayou," but her work here is relaxed and extremely actor-friendly. Even when the script takes typical biopic shortcuts (Greene's domestic relationships and offspring have been downplayed pretty heavily in favor of other matters), "Talk to Me" takes its cue from Greene himself and doesn't turn him into a saint with a microphone. He spoke to and spun music for the disenfranchised, and the people listened. Would Petey Greene have a chance in today's broadcast market?
'Talk to Me'
Directed by Kasi Lemmons; screenplay by Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa; photographed by Stephane Fontaine; edited by Terilyn A. Shropshire; music by Terence Blanchard; production design by Warren Alan Young; produced by Mark Gordon, Sidney Kimmel, Joe Fries and Josh McLaughlin. A Focus Features release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:58. MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language and some sexual content).
Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene Jr. - Don Cheadle
Dewey Hughes - Chiwetel Ejiofor
Nighthawk - Cedric The Entertainer
Vernell Watson - Taraji P. Henson
E.G. Sonderling - Martin Sheen