Don Cheadle is an absolute gas in "Talk to Me," a bio-film as hot-wired as its mouthy DJ subject, Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene.
Directed with infectious vitality by Kasi Lemmons (rebounding from the portentous "The Caveman's Valentine"), "Talk to Me" is actually a double portrait. One side of its canvas is reserved for Petey, an ex-con ("I prefer 'miscreant'") whose take-no-prisoners radio commentary became the populist sounding board for Washington, D.C.'s black community in the roiling '60s. The other side is devoted to Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a toe-the-line radio program director who taps into his own creative impulses in the process of raising Petey's star.
It is no fault of Ejiofor, a fine actor in his own right, if Cheadle tips the balance of our interest toward him. Loose-lipped and raucous as his red velvet jacket, Petey is the type of in-your-face man that one crosses the length of a subway platform to avoid, but who proves irresistible onscreen. To paraphrase one of the film's trite-but-true lines, we need movie heroes to say the things we are afraid to say.
Greene has just the sort of girlfriend that he deserves, a pushy, unbuttoned and unswervingly supportive babe named Vernell. I would love to see a movie devoted to Vernell, especially as played by the brashly funny Taraji P. Henson. But this is a man's world, as the James Brown hit reminds us from the word go, and Vernell is merely a bio-pic necessity. As written by Rick Famuyiwa and Michael Genet (the real-life son of Dewey Hughes), "Talk to Me" is more interested in exploring the choices available to black men in the '60s, as played out in the symbiotic push-and-pull of Petey and Dewey.
Cheadle gets substantial comic mileage from Petey's characterization of Dewey as a Sidney Poitier sellout. But it is Dewey's "Mr. Tibbs"-ian politesse (combined with some desperation tactics probably cribbed from his poverty days) that disarms the radio station's crusty executive (Martin Sheen) and lands Petey a disk jockey spot. After a predictably rough start, Petey's tell-it-like-it-is patter quickly upstages the station's resident bedroom voice (Cedric the Entertainer) and Nat King Cole spinner (Vondie Curtis Hall).
It is noteworthy that "Talk to Me" is one of three major releases in less than a year (including "Dreamgirls" and "Hairspray," which comes out next week) to view the civil-rights struggle through a pop-music prism. A hit song can transcend a photograph or news story in its ability to capture the emotional essence of a historical moment. Which is why one cannot overestimate the impact of a pop-world intermediary like Petey Greene at a time of national crisis.
In lionizing Petey's healing effect in the tumultuous aftermath of Martin Luther King's murder, the filmmakers stop short of awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize. But the expressions of grief in the studio and rage at a post-assassination James Brown concert are honest and deeply felt. If "Talk to Me" errs on the side of excess, for once that's just fine.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun