August 23, 2007

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Talk to Me (R)
Don Cheadle is thoroughly captivating as Petey Greene, a real-life Washington, D.C., radio personality who got his start doing prison PA announcements, in Talk to Me.

Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an ambitious man who idolizes Johnny Carson and has big plans to turn around the African-American-community-serving D.C. radio station where heís recently been promoted to program director. Heís a straight arrow who continues to pay joyless visits to his brother Milo (Mike Epps) in prison, despite his obvious dislike for the task, because he promised their mother he would. Itís during one of these visits that he first hears Petey Greene (Cheadle), a prisoner who has been allowed to turn his daily public address system announcements into a radio show, featuring music and irreverent talk. Greene and Hughes briefly meet and when Greene gets out of prison, he heads first to Hughes, after a confidence-building pep talk from his girlfriend Vernell (Taraji P. Henson), to get a job at the station as a DJ. After almost getting thrown out of the building by station owner E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen), Greene decides not to give up and he starts a small protest on the sidewalk, telling people that the station has lost touch with the people (an observation that, as Hughes knows, the ratings suggest is true). After watching Petey command a bigger and bigger protest crowd, Hughes decides to meet with him. Attracted by his bluster and in need of some fresh talent, Hughes gives Greene a shot as the morning DJ. The first show is something of a disaster and ends with Greene getting kicked off the air by Sonderling and Hughes getting demoted less than 10 minutes into the broadcast. But itís a disaster, Hughes realizes while sitting at a bar and listening to patrons discuss the show, that gets people listening and so he risks whatís left of his career and gives Greene another shot. When Sonderling tries to call the police to get Hughes and Greene thrown out, he finds he canít call out because all the lines are jammed with incoming callers, a rarity for the stationís usual morning show.

Greeneís blend of social commentary and humor quickly make him a hugely popular local figure. He becomes known for telling it like it is and even tries to talk down the rage felt in the African-American community the night Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. Soon, though, Hughesí dreams get bigger than community-centered jokes and activism. He starts booking Greene in nightclubs as a comedian and even helps him get his own local TV show. But, as Vh1ís Behind the Music has taught us, thereís a dark side to fame. The more famous Greene becomes, the less comfortable with himself he is, leading to all sorts of destructive behavior.

Iím not sure how close to the real Petey Greene Cheadleís Petey Greene is but the character, fictitious or not, is a fascinating one. Cheadle turns in yet another completely engrossing full-body performance. He so fully constructs Petey Greene that we can see his layers ó his faults, his fears, his pride and his desires.

Cheadleís performance is so good that it overshadows Ejiofor, who also constructs a complete character. If watching Cheadle is the main course of this show, watching the development of the relationship between Hughes and Greene is a very satisfying bit of dessert.

Though many movies have included the 1960s and 1970s in their stories, Talk to Me offers up a new part of the discussion. The activism, disappointment and just day-to-day life of black Washington offers new insight into what the struggle for civil rights meant at that time and just how valuable strong African-American leaders and commentators were. Talk to Me succeeds at the hardest task of this kind of biopic of a semi-famous person ó it makes you care about someone you might know nothing about and makes you want to know more about him and the times in which he lived. The movie reminds us that Greeneís story is one worth telling. Now if only Oscar voters can remember over the next five months that Cheadleís performance is one worth rewarding. A-

Rated R for pervasive language and some sexual content. Directed by Kasi Lemmons and written by Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa, Talk to Me is an hour and 58 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Focus Features. It is currently playing in the Boston area.