by Dax-Devlon Ross
Talk To Me
In Theatres: July 13th, 2007
Kasi Lemmons (dir.)
Taraji P. Henson
Cedric The Entertainer
Years ago I read somewhere that the ultimate measure of a story is whether it raises more questions than it answers. This isn’t to say that in order to be deemed worthy a story should leave its audience in a lurch; quite the contrary, a story, a good one, is always resolved by the final curtain. However, some stories take on a life of their own. The credits roll, the lights come on – as far as films go you’re completely satisfied – and still you‘re not done with it. You’ve only just begun to digest what you’ve spent the previous two hours chewing on. Now you want to know more about the characters’ motivations, why they chose certain paths. You want to understand what their journey was about. This usually means the cast and crew succeeded in making you believe what you saw was real, that it actually happened. It certainly doesn’t hurt when the movie is based on the life of a real person and is set within a time that was arguably America’s most alive.
Ralph “Petey” Greene is a straight talking, ex-con turned Disc Jockey who arrives on the Washington, D.C. scene just as the Black Power Movement is stepping into full swing. Dewy Hughes is the straight-laced executive on the rise who sees Petey’s talent and gambles his career on him. Together they roughly represent the two sides of W.E.B. Du Bois’s classic double identity: one African, one American, both striving to make sense of who they are, both in need of the other to understand themselves. Dewey is ‘too afraid to say the things’ Petey has no problem saying. Petey is ‘too afraid to do the things’ that Dewey has no problem doing. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the unlikely alliance between the well-adjusted corporate negro and the maladjusted street nigga on the big screen – indeed this is well-worn territory by now – but director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) and writers Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Brown Suga) supply the über-talented tandem of Don Cheadle (Petey) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dewey) with subtleties and complexities that give the trope new life. Indeed, the relationship between these two men is drenched in deeply intimate motifs – looks, smiles, head nods, handshakes, hugs, arguments, fights – that Lemmons skillfully structures in order to convey heterosexual black male love in a way that has rarely been seen on the screen before.
But in as much as Talk to Me is the story of a two-decade long friendship, it is also a slice of recovered memory. History has a tendency to forget all but the main actors of an age. When we think of the 1960s and ‘70s certain tried and true names rightfully come to mind. But there were others who, in their way, made their mark as well. By telling the story of Petey Greene, Talk to Me offers a kind of ‘People’s History’ of black America that would make Howard Zinn proud. It documents a time of tumult from the viewpoint of someone whose perspective is usually left out of the history books; it offers the younger among us a glimpse into a time when radio was a site of social commentary, and radio personalities weren’t just people who followed scripted play lists handed down from the mothership; it gives a gripping account of the days that followed Dr. King’s assassination and the rioting that left numerous inner cities across American in ruins for the next thirty years. In fact, it is the delicate juxtaposition of the personal and communal that allows this film to seamlessly idle between drama and comedy.
Supporting the superb performances by Cheadle and Ejofor – Oscars anyone? – are an inspired and soulful soundtrack replete with classics by Sam Cooke, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, tight, fluid plot structuring that builds, transitions and descends flawlessly, inventive insertions of original footage from the ‘60s and ‘70s eras, and steady performances by a cast of seasoned actors including Martin Sheen and Cedric The Entertainer. As Petey’s loyal but intermperate love interest Taraji P. Henson (Hustle and Flow) infuses her character (Vernell) with unanticipated depth and growth that defies clichés and stereotypes. In the end, though, Talk to Me wins for one reason: Petey Greene. Petey lived a remarkable, albeit brief, life and he left his impression on everyone he came in contact with. If the tragedy of his life was that it ended before the world outside of Washington, D.C. ever got to know his talent, then the triumph of his legacy is that modern cinema can offer him a second chance at stardom.