Talk to Me
We all love having someone to talk to, or someone to listen. Talking through things has gotten the world through many, many crises. Perhaps this is why radio talk shows are so popular: they give us a place to be heard, or to hear what others are saying, or just to participate in a process (dialogue, chatting, venting) that is crucial to making progress—or just making sense—of the crazy world we live in.
Talk to Me is about this process, and the liberating experience of giving voice to the thoughts and concerns of the soul—however gritty or painful they may be to express.
The pseudo-biopic film, directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou) follows Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene (Don Cheadle) as he rises from the ghetto (literally: prison) to radio and comedic stardom in Washington, D.C. In jail on an armed-robbery charge, Greene entertains his fellow convicts on the prison radio system, eventually using his popularity and quick wit to bring about an early end to his sentence. Once outside of jail, Greene cons a radio station programmer, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), into giving him a chance on air at WOL, "a respectable R&B" AM radio station in the nation's capital. Greene horrifies the station manager (Martin Sheen) with his "tell it like it is" attitude and propensity to attract the censors, but soon Greene's morning show is the station's most popular, with Greene himself quickly becoming the populist voice of urban D.C.
The film takes a look at Greene's success through the lens of the turbulent racial and political context in which he rose to fame. He filled a need for his listeners—a straight talker for the disenfranchised and disillusioned, in an age when nothing was certain and no talk (especially in D.C.) was trustworthy.
Talk to Me, as its title indicates, is a very verbose film. There is a ton of talking, yelling, some arguing, and a high volume of just about every expletive in the book. In this way, the film feels almost like a stage play. Certainly it is a film in which the actors—as they rattle off the rhetorically-refined cadences that define their fast-talking characters—are given the stage to really shine. And shine they do.
Cheadle, one of the best actors working today, really basks in the black-and-proud badness of Greene, and Ejiofor (Children of Men) is equally forceful as Greene's polar opposite. An early scene in a pool hall between Cheadle and Ejiofor—in some ways the focal scene of the film—is one of the best-acted interplays I've seen this year. The rest of the cast play their supporting roles well, though Greene's girlfriend (played with a bit too much energy by Taraji P. Henson) is in too many scenes, and dominates the space when she is present. Still, we never really get a sense of her character or her relationship to Greene, and mostly she's just there to showcase the fro-and-halter fashions of 1960s-70s America.
Indeed, the film's largest problem seems to be its inability to really get inside its characters. Cheadle does his best with Greene, but we never really go deep into his psyche. You never know exactly what drives his passion or what he really cares about. Sure, there are some great scenes where Greene's layers are peeled back a bit. One such is a sequence after Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated—and D.C. erupts in riots—in which Greene gets on the airwaves and tries to articulate the complex and conflicting emotions running through black America at that dark moment. Then, much later, there is an intense scene when Greene performs on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and unleashes a bitter indictment on white America's minstrelization of black comics. It's a scene straight out of a Spike Lee film.