In honor of D.C. radio host Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, I'm going to try to be real here. I recently watched the movie about him starring Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor. I was interested during most of it, even moved at times. But at the end all I could think was, what happened to Petey Greene?
Helmed by "Eve's Bayou" director Kasi Lemmons, "Talk to Me" is difficult to follow because its focus and themes are as perpetually in a state of upheaval as its characters. That's no easy feat, considering that the focus is an ex-con (Cheadle) who climbed to the top of broadcasting in our nation's capital, his ex-stripper girlfriend in tow. According to the film, he helped save the city during riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
His path initially blocked by producer Dewey Hughes (Ejiofor), Greene overcomes and succeeds in his dream of doing a radio show at D.C.'s WOL by hammering away with his one overpowering talent: being an outspoken loudmouth. These early scenes in which Petey and Dewey spar, test each other and gradually admit a symbiotic friendship are competently handled if rarely believable. They lean too heavily on comic relief and the Hollywood tendency to favor sensationalism over the reality of cause and effect brought on by genuine human motive. Some important sideline figures, like Martin Sheen's stiff radio station owner, E.G. Sonderling, even end up as mere caricatures.
I think the real Petey Greene was lost somewhere in here as well. "Talk to Me" first paints him as a radical, but then becomes myopic when looking at what became of him and his radicalism. While the first half of the movie is at least a crowd-pleasing entertainer, the third act becomes so lost in Greene's and Hughes' legacies, or afraid to inspect where they diverged, the movie ends with a meek and unconvincing puff of congratulations when it seemed to promise a rousing explosion of some new insight.
Instead, we are left with a couple of lame title cards, in which we learn that some 10,000 mourners attended Greene's funeral, and that he and Dewey's former station became the cornerstone of the Radio One Network. There's a fascinating irony here, between the death of a radio radical and the birth of a giant radio network, but I think Lemmons and her producers were too busy trying to straighten and homogenize their story to see it. Unlike their hero, they just couldn't keep it real. (R) 118 min. S