The Honesty of Talk to Me

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Michael Gibson / Focus Features

Don Cheadle in Talk to Me.

Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene (Don Cheadle) found his calling in jail where he was permitted two daily 20-minute spots as a disc jockey on the prison's public address system. In that unlikely context, he primitively pioneered something akin to the now ubiquitous shock-jock style. With the help of a straight-arrow program director named Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), he pretty much elbowed his way into a job at WOL-AM, a near-moribund Washington, DC radio station, whose audience was basically black and basically fed up with conventional broadcasting.

Back in the 60s no one had heard anyone quite like Petey (Howard Stern was an early fan). It wasn't so much that he talked dirty (though he sometimes did), but that he talked autobiographically — about his shady past, about his bad habits (boozing, mainly), and about his mildly transgressive present. Mostly he talked about life as he (and his listeners) struggled with it. He was hip, cool, angry, funny and, in the radio of his day, unique.

But underneath his jive-assed manner Petey was a serious, even moral, man. And when Washington riotously erupted in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination, Petey took to the air and, in a marathon broadcast, helped calm the city. It was his apotheosis. It brought him a measure of national fame and the possibility of becoming a major celebrity.

Up to this point director Kasi Lemmons's Talk to Me traces a lively, if fairly standard, biopic arc — the talented, troubled performer asserting his special and winning gifts in an indifferent world. She is, to be sure, lucky to have Don Cheadle in the leading role. He's an actor who knows how to play outrage without losing touch with his own inherent sweetness of spirit. And they are both fortunate to have Taraji P. Henson as Petey's girl friend, Vernell. As she proved in Hustle and Flow, she is a star in waiting — both beautiful and irresistibly free-spirited. There's nothing cute or teasing in her sexuality, nothing but in-the-moment honesty in her emotions.

Like the movie itself, Henson and Cheadle are a lot of fun — until it appears that something larger than local fame is about to be thrust upon him. He instinctively understands that his success depends on the defense of his singularity, his incomparability with anyone else, and he becomes nervous, uncertain and withdrawn about moving beyond his small Washington pond — symbolized by a gig on The Johnny Carson Show, which he funks.

We take that to be just a typical spot of second act trouble, something to be triumphantly overcome in the movie's third act. Except that it isn't. The implication is that Dewey, now his full-time manager, believed Petey could be turned into a stand-up comic, a black guy spouting one-liners designed to titillate a white audience suddenly attuned to the black outrage they had never before heard. That, however, was not Petey. And he knew it. He could talk fast, all right, but he was at heart a free-associating yarn spinner, a man who had to establish his own rhythms, not live by those of other people. He was never going to be Richard Pryor. Or Nipsey Russell.

It is at this point that Talk to Me embraces a dangerous paradox. By failing to fulfill our generic expectations, by letting its protagonist sink back into local hero status it cheats us of the good feelings we have come to expect from movies about show biz paragons. You leave the theater feeling disappointed by its failure to release the buoyant feelings that last-minute comebacks usually engender. Where's the hit movie, the Broadway triumph, the hysterically greeted concert tour that justifies all the hard times we have endured with our hero or heroine? It's only later, as you think the movie over — and it does stay with you — that you realize it has kept faith with the essential Petey Greene, a man who knew his limits and was determined to live within them. Contra movie conventions, life does not always — make that "usually" — offer us unambiguous success. If we're lucky, we get what Petey got — a few good years, a chance to do some decent work, the nostalgic affection of an ever-dwindling number of people whose lives he touched. Eventually you may come to think of Talk to Me as a true movie rarity — a very honest yet curiously affecting experience.