Good Morning, Washington
Oh my god and wonder of wonders, here we have a studio movie — a drama! — starring not one but two actors-of-color. God, what a terrible phrase. Don’t we all have a color? Okay: two actors who aren’t the usual medium peachy-beige of those who typically get to star in studio movies unless their name is Denzel Washington. Not to impugn Denzel, who is fantabulous, but you’d think, looking at the bulk of movies made in Hollywood, that there’s room for only one serious actor of a medium chocolately brownish hue who isn’t shucking-and-jiving and fully aware of his “proper” place as the expendable comic relief.
And yet I’m not grading on a curve when I tell you: See Talk to Me if you want to see two incredible actors at the very top of their game. Forget skin color: Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor are two of the best actors of my generation working today, period. I wouldn’t dare grade on a curve, not with these guys, and I hate that I even have to say that, hate that it’s necessary to point out that there aren’t enough darker-than-medium-peachy-beige actors getting good work that it’s very tempting to praise to high heavens any opportunities that they get.
I say that because I do have to point out that Talk to Me is a pretty standard rags-to-riches story about a regular guy getting a taste of fame and fortune and finding that it’s not really to his taste, that it warps him in ways he doesn’t want to be warped. The guy is Petey Greene (Cheadle: Ocean’s Thirteen, Reign Over Me), who was a real person, a pioneering radio deejay in Washington DC in the 1960s, a black man who spoke the truth to his black audience. Simple truths, like about the stupidity of his own doing that led to his incarceration — prison is where his talents with a microphone and spontaneous, entertaining jabbering were discovered by radio station program director Dewey Hughes (Ejiofor: Children of Men, Tsunami: The Aftermath), even if Hughes didn’t realize it at first. Petey gets sprung, comes to Dewey for a job, and the rest is history, etc. Greene strikes a chord with listeners, though it takes some barreling through Hughes and his boss (Martin Sheen: The Departed, Bobby), enlightened though he is, for an old medium-peachy-beige dude in the 1960s.
There’s a lot of very funny culture clash stuff early on, as the aggressively full-of-personality Petey scares even other medium chocolately brownish folk with his abundant eccentricity. And some funny/serious stuff as Dewey demonstrates that he is not the soft Uncle Tom Petey thinks he is merely because he speaks grammatical English and wears a suit. Watch the pool scene early in the film (that is, billiards, not swimming): there’s all sorts of clever commentary going on here about not letting ourselves be fooled by appearances, or by what we think appearances signify. It’s a fantastic moment, one of the best onscreen this year, and it’s so thrilling because it lets Ejiofor and Cheadle show off how layered they are as actors, how they let their characters reveal themselves in increments in small moments, how they don’t let you rest comfortably thinking you know everything about them. (Kudos, too, of course, to screenwriters Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa [Brown Sugar] and director Kasi Lemmons for creating situations like this for them, and letting them go to town with them.)
So what happens, then, is that you can’t quite predict where this rather predictable story will go — even when it takes an expected path, there’s something new and fascinating to be found in how Cheadle and Ejiofor play it. The movie turns rather more serious at the halfway point, with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the attendant civil unrest that causes — Petey discovers himself as a real voice of the people at that moment, and that’s when his rocket to fame blasts off. And that’s when the relevance to today, when it seems that radio is passé, really sharpens into focus.
All through Talk to Me, from the very first moments of the film, when we eavesdrop on Petey’s prison PA “broadcasts,” I thought, Wow, cool, deejays like Petey were like early bloggers: they spoke their mind without fear, they created a conversation with their listeners… and they lost what made them special when they sold out. As Petey seems on the verge of doing at one point — oh, his disastrous appearance on The Tonight Show, at a time when Dewey, now his manager, is pushing Petey to turn his local fame into something more, is painful to watch, not out of sympathetic embarrassment for Petey, but because of what it could signify: the loss of what made him a unique and necessary voice of opposition and independence.
I won’t tell you if Petey Greene sells out or not, and you may not already know, because as influential as the real Greene was, his story is all but unknown — or, at least, I had never heard of him. So as conventional as much of Talk to Me is, there’s still plenty to surprise, from the power of its stars to the untold history of its story.