'Talk to Me': A Political Movie that Lacks Politics
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There are two straight-to-the-gut scenes in Talk To Me , the new biopic in which Don Cheadle slam-dunks his portrayal of Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, the ex-con, street-sassy, Afro'ed-out deejay who brought black power to the radio in Washington, DC, in the 1960s.
The first occurs the night Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated. Greene, who had fast-talked himself into an on-air job at WOL-AM, goes into the studio to try to calm down the city, which is in flames, as blacks are rioting and destroying their own neighborhoods. "I don't know if I'm more sad or angry," Greene tells his audience. And Greene is walking a line. He pleads with his listeners to resist the urge to strike: "That's your city ... That's not what Dr. King would've wanted." Then he says, "The truth is, if they can do it to him, don't think for a minute they can't cut you down like a dog." But he counsels, "Put away your anger."
When he walks out of the studio, the other African-American employees embrace him. They all looked stunned and exhausted. Then they spot in the corridor the white station owner (played by Martin Sheen) sobbing. Greene and the other blacks are each processing this cataclysmic event, calculating the right proportion of outrage and sorrow. But for the white guy, it's simple: he's pegged the needle at tragedy. This awful event has not brought the two sides of the racial divide together. It has illuminated the gulf between black and white. The station owner has the luxury to feel only grief. Greene and the rest have a more complicated emotional and psychological task. They walk past the station owner, shrug, and go home for the night.
In the other scene-a few years later when Greene has gone national with a television talk show, records, and nightclub appearances-the onetime prison deejay is booked on Johnny Carson's show. This is it, his manager, Dewey Hughes (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) tells him. Greene has made the big time. It's gonna be Cosby, Pryor ... and Greene. And Greene, as the movie has proved by this point, has the chops (the voice, the acerbic wit, the killer instinct of a social critic) to go one-on-one with these other rising black luminaries.
But minutes after Carson has finished joshing with Bette Midler, Greene hits the stage and stares at the white audience. He doesn't launch into the expected routine. Instead, he tells the crowd, "I'm just an ex-con." And he explains that when he does his radio show for black people, "I know they're laughing with me, not at me." He goes on: "All I see is a room full of white folks waiting to hear some nigger jokes. I have nothing to say to you." He mutters, "sorry" to Carson and walks off the set. His career (as portrayed in the movie) is over. Greene could not take the final step into respectability-that is, the world of white respectability.
These two interactions between white and black America mark the most dramatic interludes in the movie, which was directed by Kasi Lemmons, a rare commodity in Hollywood: an African-American female director. (In 1997, Lemmons directed Eve's Bayou , a film about a black doctor and his family in Louisiana in the early 1960s, starring Samuel L. Jackson.)
But Lemmons, who is 46 years old, was not interested in turning Petey Greene's short life -- he died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 55 -- into a race-driven tale of blacks and whites. She opted to turn it into a different exploration of race, one involving blacks and other blacks. That is, she examines the dilemma often faced by minorities: confront the system or work within it. Talk To Me zeroes in on the face-off between Greene and Hughes, the sole African-American executive at WOL who found and nurtured Greene and who tried to shoehorn him into the realm of establishment acceptability. This makes for a winning movie, but that focus has an unfortunate side effect; Talk To Me is something of a political movie with little politics.
The arc of Petey Greene's life is classic movie material: rags, riches, downfall. Cheadle superbly captures Greene's badass strutting and his not-too-far-from-the-surface insecurity. This performance will spark talk of a Best Actor nomination. But Talk To Me is a pas de deux, with Greene and Hughes each struggling as a black man to find his place in American society during times of change.
Hughes, a son of a local housing project, wants to be legit. His role model is literally Johnny Carson -- the emcee of white America. (Watching Carson, Hughes says, "showed me there was a world far away from the Anacostia projects.") Hughes first sees Greene, who has street cred and plenty of verbal skill, as the means to higher ratings for his struggling station. Hughes is looking for an authentic black voice because he understands the potential commercial value of such authenticity.
Out of jail -- where he was serving time for armed robbery -- Greene needs someone on the inside to help him monetize his natural talents, which includes the ability to connect with his brothers and sisters with tell-it-like-it-is humor. He looks up Hughes (whose brother is also in jail) and badgers Hughes into giving him a chance on the air, which, of course, Greene blows.
But Hughes realizes the guy deserves a second chance and, if guided, can make the station a bunch of money. Eventually a blacked-owned media empire (that survives to this day in Washington) is born. But first Greene and Hughes have to work out some issues.
Greene slams the ever-aspiring Hughes as a "Sidney Poitier-ass nigger." Hughes is pissed at Greene for being too much like his no-good brother-the-convict: a discredit to their race. Greene calls Hughes a "house nigger." Hughes fires back and tells Greene he's a "field nigger."
Since Talk To Me is a Hollywood film, they both have to be right to some degree. And, of course, they can only succeed together: taking on The Man and working with The Man. (Greene and Hughes are both damn happy when a bunch of white TV executives sign up Greene's television show for national distribution.) At one point, Hughes tells Greene, "I guess I need you to say the things I'm afraid to say, and you need me to do the things you're afraid to do." It's the message moment, and Greene replies, "You ought to put that shit on a greeting card."
Lemmons probes this yin-yang dichotomy of black life with flair and humor. The film has its formulaic moments, but it poignantly and respectfully captures the rhythm, spirit, and clothes--especially the clothes!--of black American life of the 60s and 70s. And Lemmons hands Cheadle a meaty role, befitting one of Hollywood's best actors. (Cheadle has become a true leading man with emotionally rich performances, such as in Hotel Rwanda , and with his save Darfur activism.) But what's missing is the political content of Greene's life and work.
In Talk To Me , Greene barely interacts with the civil rights struggle or the antiwar movement. In real life, Petey Greene was a community activist who railed against poverty and racism. Cheadle's Green mounts a protest against WOL before it hires him. On the air, he makes fun of the foibles of his fellow blacks, and he speaks to his audience from the POV of an angry black man. He refers to a local black politician as a pimp.
But the most controversial remark Greene makes in the movie is a put-down of Motown impresario Berry Gordy. What the real Greene had to say about Vietnam, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, drugs, elections -- and I'm presuming he had some things to say on these and other hot-button subjects -- is not in the movie.
The movie ends with Greene's funeral. Thousands of his fans are there (as was true in real life). Dewey Hughes, who bought WOL after splitting with Greene following the Carson debacle, tells the crowd, "He said the things we were afraid to say." Talk To Me , an engaging film, would be more powerful if it showed more of what Greene had actually said.
David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation and the co-author of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush . He writes a blog at davidcorn.com.