Ralph "Petey" Greene didn't just work in radio; he worked it over with straight talk about white privilege and black power in the 1960s and '70s.
Greene wasn't saying anything African-American listeners didn't know or white eavesdroppers shouldn't have. But he was one of the few African-Americans who could get away with it. In complacent times Greene called for action. In the fiery aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, he urged everyone to be cool.
Between monologues and open-line phone calls, Greene dished up the sweetest soul and R&B music of the era.
Talk to Me, the movie based on Greene's mercurial career, operates like a radio locked on "scan." Director Kasi Lemmons constantly flips through channels, seeking her movie's groove - music, comedy, character study, heavy issues, sex - seldom pausing long enough to do full justice to any of them.
Fortunately, each station has the same talented crew spinning vinyl records and plot lines. You won't see better actors this summer more deserving of a focused screenplay. Talk to Me is a good movie that could have been great throughout, instead of only a few scenes.
Don Cheadle slides comfortably into Petey's muttonchop sideburns, pimp couture and Afro wigs. Cheadle locates those small moments of vulnerability that bring depth to the disc jockey's soul brother posturing. Few actors are so dedicated to authenticity without making the effort obvious.
The yin to Greene's swaggering yang is straitlaced Dewey Hughes, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor as underrated now as Cheadle was a few years ago. Dewey meets Petey in prison during an obligatory visit, shocked by the convict's brash talk over a jailhouse radio wire. Dewey works for a Washington, D.C., station that caters to urban listeners but is stuck in Nat King Cole land while the world is going Marvin Gaye.
Petey considers the well-tailored Dewey an Uncle Tom, leading a picket line protest until he gets a shot on the air. But not before Dewey clarifies his own street credibility in a pool hall showdown that inspires the film's best dialogue. Ejiofor's subtle intensity plays well off Cheadle's extroverted turn.
Taraji P. Henson, who ignited Hustle & Flow as a baby mama with a big voice, is mostly stuck playing a stereotype, as Petey's girlfriend. She is often very funny in a movie that shouldn't be, or at least not as much so. Only in later scenes, when Petey's career and health take downturns, does she shed the screeching, finger-wagging routine.
The radio station owner (Martin Sheen) huffs and puffs about Petey's provocative act, while veteran DJs (Cedric the Entertainer, Vondie Curtis-Hall) gripe about Petey's intrusion on their gigs. Everyone finds common dramatic ground in Lemmons' other exemplary sequence, when King's murder sends the movie into proper historical - rather than hysterical - context. The action that follows falls short of that lump-in-the-throat chain of events, leaving a curious sense of incompletion. For all of Petey's insistence on straight talk, Talk to Me often seems skittish about its subject and his volatile era.
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or email@example.com. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.
Talk to Me
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Cast: Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen, Cedric the Entertainer, Vondie Curtis-Hall
Screenplay: Michael Genet, Rick Famuyiwa
Rating: R; pervasive harsh profanity, sexual situations, substance abuse
Running time: 118 min.