Talk to Me never was sent to me as a director," says Kasi Lemmons, the 46-year-old black woman who ended up directing it superbly.
"I lobbied for it," she says over the phone from Los Angeles. "I don't think they were looking for a woman director, [certainly not] based on my movies, which were ... more lyrical."
Then she catches herself: Talk to Me, a live-wire portrait of Washington broadcast personality Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene Jr. (Don Cheadle), is lyrical, "but with a different beat."
There've been some quiet breakthroughs for black filmmakers this year, from the theatrical release of Charles Burnett's underground legend Killer of Sheep to Tim Story and Antoine Fuqua continuing to push color-blind director-casting with Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Shooter, respectively.
But Lemmons took the most astonishing jump. Her major credit was her directing debut, Eve's Bayou (1997), a beautifully acted tale, based on Lemmons' original script, of the secrets, lies and love at the center of an elegant Louisiana doctor's family. A film of swirling, sensual moods, it was hardly the calling card for Talk to Me. The latter social-cultural extravaganza takes in everything from Petey calming Washington after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Petey's ambitious manager, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), booking him on The Tonight Show. Lemmons first thought of Talk to Me as something that would engage the mind of her actor-director husband, Vondie Curtiss-Hall.
Still, Lemmons says, Petey's voice stuck in her head. She could get behind a guy who said: "I'll tell it to the hot; I'll tell it to the cold; I'll tell it to the young; I'll tell it to the old. I don't want no laughin', I don't want no cryin', and, most of all, no signifyin'." And Petey's mid-'60s radio milieu set off vibrations in her soul.
Lemmons began to see it as a buddy movie in which Cheadle's provocateur Petey and Ejiofor's proper radio executive Dewey interact with as much affection and friction as Paul Newman and Robert Redford or Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier.
Best of all she started thinking of it as "a musical."
And then, she says, "I was really turned on by it."
So when Lemmons went to the producers to pitch herself as a director, she "did a song and dance. I stood up waving my arms around, probably singing. I went in with Sly Stone -- it's funky and immediate and dynamic."
Talk to Me was an ideal project to draw on Lemmons' talents as an actor-turned-director with a complex social conscience and an appetite for audiovisual poetry.
Acting and writing were her youthful passions. But she studied cinematography at New York's New School for Social Research because she wanted to make political documentaries. She did a documentary about the homeless, Fall from Grace, and "created a dramatic voice-over for it. A man from [British TV station] Channel 4 saw a screening in London and came up to me questioning the validity of [the voice-over] and I thought, 'Wow -- I made something that's worth questioning.'"
On an acting audition for The Cosby Show in the late 1980s, she asked Cosby if he wanted to see her film. "He said, 'What I really need is a writer.'" She came back to him with a sample about a husband and wife in conflict -- Cosby "forgot he ever told me to come back with a scene, but there it was!" -- and was hired to collaborate on a screenplay with two New York-based black female playwrights, P.J. Gibson and Lee Hunkins.
The experience taught her dramaturgy and got her into the Writers Guild.
Lemmons turned heads with her luminous sanity playing Jodie Foster's FBI peer and best friend in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). She moved to L.A. and kept acting. "But I had this story in my head, and the story was something I could tell from beginning to end a year before I ever wrote a word. And when I wrote it down it was Eve's Bayou."
She's made a living as a writer ever since, primarily "looking to be a writer-director," but going up "for jobs with other directors as well."
Although Dewey's son, Michael Genet, and Rick Famuyiwa wrote Talk to Me, Lemmons' feeling for Petey's verbal spieling is part of what gives the film its get-up-and-go. "I knew that you had to love Petey," she says, but "he was difficult to love."
She had treasured Cheadle's breakthrough performance as Mouse in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995).
"Mouse is a killer, but you like him anyway." That quality told Lemmons that Cheadle was "the kind of actor you move toward him, always. That's what you need to play Petey."
With Dewey as her main source, she understood Petey's unruly integrity. Conventional success "was Dewey's dream, not Petey's. Dewey would tell a story about how he made a comedy album with Petey. Petey would sit in a bar and tell the same story over and over again to different crowds and the timing was always perfect."
But when Dewey tried to put it on the album, Petey "killed his own jokes. His timing was off. He just didn't want to do it," she says.
As soon as she finished this film, she felt the same way she did after putting together the filmed tribute to Poitier at the 2002 Academy Awards. "One person mattered," she says, "and that was Poitier." (Happily, it moved him.) On Talk to Me, too, one person mattered -- and that was Dewey. (Petey died in 1984.)
Dewey told her he planned to see it in a theater in Oakland, Calif., when it opened, sitting in the back with a friend, eating popcorn. But Lemmons was "desperate for him to see it. I had to know."
She prepared herself for the "music that's hard to face." But afterward "he was so emotional and incredibly complimentary, from a real place. It's brought us even closer together. All of us who worked on the film -- it was great for all of us."
And for the audience, too.