Something to ‘Talk’ about

In today’s radio universe, you’d be hard-pressed tofind asuperficially angry talk-show voice who doesn’t actually have a little (Stern) or a lot (Limbaugh) of interest in keeping the status quo quo-ing. Talk to Me, based on the life of Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, offers a radio personality who not only started off as one of the underdogs he represented on air, but felt a gravitational, possibly tragic, pull to remain a little guy even when riches came calling.

Greene’s not a role model by any means — he’s in jail when the film begins, and unrepentantly refers to himself throughout as a con and a thief. (When a more civilized man calls him a “miscreant,” Greene mocks the high-falutin’ language as if the stranger were trying to flatter him.) But from the beginning of his career, Greene understood that his hold over people relied on a willingness to speak entertainingly but truthfully about the hard realities other media voices chose to ignore.

Greene comes to life in yet another potent performance by Don Cheadle as the unlikely new drive-time voice of Washington, D.C.’s WOL. His blunt talk about street life ruffles feathers from the minute he takes the microphone. The quick, overwhelming listener response, though, convinces The Man (Martin Sheen, as the sympathetic but straight-laced station owner) that ratings trump propriety. Greene’s first days on the job, which entail a lot of jiving, conniving, and outright larceny, feel too entertaining to be true, but they build up enough comic steam to get us interested in a character few viewers are probably familiar with.

If Greene’s listeners had reason to take offense because he spoke to them as if they all shared his weaknesses, evidently the racial realities of ’60s- and ’70s-era D.C. made it easy for a black audience to empathize with his ex-con perspective. D.C. was dubbed “Chocolate City” for its largely African-American makeup, though it is ironically home to the densest concentration of white power in the country.

A straight-and-narrow view is delivered by Greene’s foil Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the rising exec who spots his talent and, playing enabler to Greene’s con man, gets him on the air.

While following the course of this partnership, Talk to Me lovingly evokes the era’s high points (Soul-music scholars may resent the over-familiar soundtrack, but these are the tunes a mainstream radio station would’ve been playing) and one big detour through the low: A sequence revolving around Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination shows Greene in his finest hour and provides the movie’s center of gravity. That gravity keeps the film’s second half more familiar-feeling than its raucous, bawdy start, but a savvy script and two exceptional leading men prolong our interest throughout.

Talk to Me
Dir. Kasi Lemmons;
writ. Michael Genet, Rick Famuyiwa;
feat. Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor,
Martin Sheen, Taraji P. Henson,
Cedric the Entertainer, Vondie Curtis-Hall (R)

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