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  • 15
  • Biography, Drama
  • 2007
  • 118 mins

Talk To Me

Talk To Me

Synopsis

A colourful biopic of Petey Greene, an irreverent black ex-con who becomes a popular Washington DC disc jockey during the turbulent 1960s

About

Talk Radio is the exception that proves the rule: the secret of films about radio DJs is to get the action out of the studio and to find a more cinematic distraction for viewers who, after all, could be at home listening to their wireless (or watching 'Frasier') for free.

In Play Misty For Me, the hook was a bunny-boiling erotomaniac; in Good Morning Vietnam, it was the background of Indo-Chinese conflict; in The Fisher King, a modern quest for the Holy Grail; Private Parts, nudity and crudity; and in Straight Talk, big-city romance (and Dolly Parton). In the case of Talk To Me, a biopic of celebrated Washington disc jockey Ralph Waldo 'Petey' Greene, relatively few scenes, apart from his first broadcasts and a riot-quelling session in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination, actually involve Petey (Cheadle) 'running his mouth' on-air - although plenty show him doing the same with his manager and friend Dewey Hughes (Ejiofor) or supportive girlfriend Vernell Watson (Henson).

In fact, unusually for a biopic, Petey's character is barely seen to develop at all. We know from the start that he is a straight-talking voice for the downtrodden, with a good heart but also his share of personal demons - and his failure to change, from beginning to end, forms an essential part of his lionisation in the film. What does develop, though, is Petey's relationship with Dewey, who is his polar opposite - ambitious, diplomatic, sober, and happy to play the white man's game if it gets him what he wants. Talk To Me makes the ups and downs between this odd couple its main subject, so that it is essentially a buddy pic, as well as a showcase for 1960s nostalgia from a rarely seen black - as opposed to blaxploitation - perspective, at a time when the civil rights movement and Black Power were in full swing.

Not that Talk To Me is a 'straight' buddy picture. On the contrary, Petey and Dewey's great love for each other is the one topic on which both men get uncharacteristically tongue-tied. Director Kasi Lemmons draws from a range of motifs - naked embraces, sleepovers, a jealous partner, tiffs, even the pocketing of pool balls - to suggest a relationship bordering on the erotic, making this the gayest black buddy flick since Bad Boys. Unlike in Michael Bay's film, Lemmons is striving to explore seriously the depth of feeling, seldom expressed, that can evolve in relationships between black men, making this an astute study of male friendship and homosocial bonds.

The pattern of most recent biographical films (Ray, The Aviator, Walk The Line) is to show their subject's rise, fall and triumphant return - but here Petey regards rising beyond a certain point as a compromise of his true character, and so, by the film's own logic, if he is to remain at street level, his triumph is - and must be - strictly posthumous.

By the end, it is Dewey rather than Petey who has climbed to the top and become his own boss - but one of the most interesting suggestions in Talk To Me is just how little the so-called American Dream has in common with the ideologies and aspirations of many working-class African Americans. When it came to the impoverished, the criminalised and the excluded, Johnny Carson's 'The Tonight Show' (whose public forum Petey so self-destructively rejects) just did not have much to say. Dewey may be the exception, and may conform to more conventional notions of the self-made man, but in the end it is Petey - his disarmingly frank speech and his uncompromising attitudes - that this film is celebrating, and whose loss it is mourning.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Cedric The Entertainer, Taraji P Henson, Mike Epps, Don Cheadle, Vondie Curtis Hall, Martin Sheen, Herbert L Rawlings Jr, Alison Sealy-Smith, Chiwetel Ejiofor
  • Director: Kasi Lemmons
  • Screen Writer: Rick Famuyiwa, Michael Genet
  • Writer (Story): Michael Genet
  • Producer: Mark Gordon, Joe Fries, Sidney Kimmel, Josh McLaughlin
  • Photographer: Stéphane Fontaine
  • Composer: Terence Blanchard

In a nutshell

Engaging and often riotously funny with excellent performances, groovy tunes and some very natty costumes, Talk To Me is a thumping crowd-pleaser - even if an over-schematic screenplay means that it wears its themes a little unsubtly on its red velvet sleeves.

by Anton Bitel

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