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Movies/TV Last Updated: May 30th, 2008 - 11:49:13

Straight Talk, No Chaser
By Esther Editor and Film Critic
Jul 13, 2007, 12:30

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“Talk to Me,” the title of the new film about Washington, D.C. radio and TV personality “Petey” Greene, also describes the era in the 1960’s and 1970’s when being vocal in the Black community, was integral to being powerful—on the radio and in the streets.

In the hands of director Kasi Lemons (“Eve’s Bayou,” “The Caveman’s Valentine”), and actor Don Cheadle, Greene’s story is a rich evocation of Washington, D.C. and much of urban Black America in those tense years when the Civil Rights Movement broke down entrenched barriers of segregation, when the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and when inner-city neighborhoods were set ablaze by rioters in the streets.

Greene, who grew up in poverty in Washington, D.C. and did a stint in prison for armed robbery, is also emblematic of new possibilities created for those Blacks able to slip through elusive doors of opportunity. “I ain’t nothing but a con and a thief,” he would say, even after gaining a national profile as an entertainer and activist. The tense relationship between Greene and Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a pioneering Black radio executive, also powerfully symbolizes the schism between working class and middle class Blacks with differing ideas about integration, progress and upward mobility. As both
men say in the story, each needs the other to do what the other is afraid to do. Through the power of Black radio, Greene was able to connect with disenfranchised Blacks of the nation’s capital. Hughes became a successful businessman who helped lay the groundwork for Radio One, a large, Black-owned media company.

It is through the relationship between Greene and Hughes that the story of Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene unfolds. When we first meet him, he is still doing time at the Lorton Prison, in nearby Virginia, where he becomes a popular and profane personality on the prison station. After his release, he heads to WOL-AM in Washington, where he knows Hughes is working, and bullies his way into an on-air job. The bond between the two men takes them through turbulent times, and then to the national spotlight, whether they are ready for it, or not.

In tone, “Talk to Me” is similar to Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” filled with both humor and the serious tenor of serious times. In a span of two hours, it goes from the streets to the boardroom and back, several times. Taraji P. Henson (“Hustle and Flow”) plays Greene’s girlfriend, Vernell Watson, with the sort of sassiness that she is known for and Cedric the Entertainer adds to the era’s air of flamboyant extremes in the role of Nighthawk, a smooth-talking night disc jockey popular with the ladies.

The film is also similar to other recent, fine efforts, including “Pride,” which tell an important story but do not get treated in an important way in terms of marketing and publicity. Despite the dearth of marketing, maybe Black audiences can break the mold of apathy and lukewarm response to such films, and show instead that our actors don’t have to play thugs and pimps to get attention. Petey Greene understood that.

This review also appeared on Please support us by ordering Esther Iverem's We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies, 1986-2006 (Thunder’s Mouth Press, April 2007)at or at your favorite bookstore. Thanks!

© Copyright 2006

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