Don Cheadle as Ralph “Petey” Greene
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Dewey Hughes
Taraji P. Henson as Vernell
Martin Sheen as E.G. Sonderling
Cedric the Entertainer as Nighthawk” Bob Terry
Vondie Curtis-Hall as Sunny Jim Kelsey
Elle Downs as Peaches
Mike Epps as Milo Hughes
Jeff Kassel as Teddy
Vicky Lambert as KiKi
Jim Malmberg as Johnny Carson
Kimelia Weathers as Shirley Chisholm Supporter
Ira Zingraff as ‘Doc’ Severinsen
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
A funny and entertaining portrait of a D.C. shock jock pioneer shown through an often turbulent friendship that showcases top performances from Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
After getting out of jail in 1965, Ralph “Petey” Greene Jr. lands a job as morning DJ at a prestigious Washington D.C. radio station with the help of the program manager Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Greene’s outspoken style immediately gets him into trouble, even as it builds him a black audience who appreciates that he tells things as they are. Petey becomes a pivotal part of the black community in D.C. but gets burnt out when Dewey tries to make him into a television star.
Radio DJs have proven to be memorable film characters when they’ve been immortalized on celluloid, whether it’s Robin Williams in “Good Morning Vietnam,” Eric Bogosian in “Talk Radio” or even Howard Stern in his biographical comedy “Private Parts.” All three films centered around controversial talk radio “shock jocks” during a certain period in time when they were prominent, but someone had to start off the trend, and this pseudo-biographical drama introduces one of its pioneers, one Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr., a former prison inmate who was hired as the morning DJ at a prestigious Washington D.C. radio station in the mid-60s and proceeded to reinvent the job with raunchy rants that had his listeners cheering but others complaining.
Sporting sideburns and an impressive afro, Don Cheadle ably captures the mannerisms or “Peteyisms” of the local D.C. celebrity in this well-done film that combines actual television footage from the times with dramatizations by a talented cast to document key points in Greene’s life in a way that merits positive comparisons to “Good Night, And Good Luck.” This isn’t your typical biopic though. Rather than spouting out facts and data about Greene’s tenure on radio and television, it’s more about his relationship with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Dewey Hughes, the program director that gave Petey his big break on radio and helped plot Petey’s rise to fame as his manager.
It takes some time for the movie to find its footing as it sets up the relationship between Petey and Dewey through a number of humor-filled segments showing Petey’s prison antics, convincing a fellow inmate to climb up a building so that he can “talk him down” and get his sentence reduced. Once released, Petey gets into troubles with his feisty girlfriend Vernell, played by Taraji P. Henson, and with the FCC by saying things that puts Imus’ problems into clearer perspective. When Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated in April 1968, the streets of D.C. are filled with riots and looting and it’s up to Petey to try to calm the people down, something he does on the radio and with a speech before a memorial concert featuring James Brown.
The tone of the movie changes drastically at this point, carrying real weight as we see how important Petey has become to the troubled black community of D.C. It’s quite a dramatic departure for the film, especially as the announcement of King’s death comes in the middle of a humorous scene. Seeing how Petey’s popularity has increased, Dewey tries to capitalize on that, becoming Petey’s manager, booking him on “The Tonight Show” and producing his own television talk show. At a certain point, the story switches gears and becomes more about Dewey and how he had attempted to live out his own dreams through Petey, who was able to say things that Dewey internalizes, but eventually, it drives a wedge between them.
Don Cheadle is an actor who always puts his all into a role, and that’s certainly case with this distinctive role that allows him to clown around in the first half of the movie but settle into a more serious demeanor in the second half. He does an especially good job recreating Petey’s radio and TV rants as well as his moving public speeches. During the last act of the movie, Cheadle is almost overshadowed by Ejiofor’s equally strong dramatic performance, as we start to see Dewey branch away from Petey and their friendship starts to crumble. It’s surprising to see such powerful emotions coming from these characters as they get older, and the many scenes between the two actors really makes the film so special, as they work from a solid script that beautifully captures the love-hate nature of their relationship. It’s especially nice to see Ejiofor return to roles with a bit more depth and dimension.
Beyond the two leads, director Kasi Lemmons (“The Caveman’s Valentine”) has assembled quite an amazing cast including Martin Sheen as the cranky owner of the radio station, and Petey’s fellow DJs, the smooth-talkin’ “Nighthawk” and the clean-cut “Sunny Jim” Kelsey, are played respectively by Cedric the Entertainer and “Waist Deep” director Vondie Curtis-Hall, the latter casting seeming rather ironic considering his gangster flick background.
The Bottom Line:
Funny and entertaining at times, poignant at others, Kasi Lemmons and her talented cast have done a fine job immortalizing this little known radio icon in a way that never seems preachy or sensationalistic. It takes some time to get there, but once it does, “Talk to Me” is a great example of the right way to capture someone’s life story on film.