Political Film Society - Newsletter #283 - July 15, 2007

July 15, 2007


Talk to Me In 1984, at the age of 53, Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, Jr., (played by Don Cheadle) died of cancer, and his memorial service was attended by approximately 10,000 persons, more than any other native-born Washingtonian in history. The biopic Talk to Me recounts his life from May 1966, when he was a disk jockey in Lorton Reformatory, where he was imprisoned for a ten-year sentence for armed robbery of a small grocery story. Six months earlier, he began to persuade a fellow inmate to climb a water tower and scream like a crazy man. When Warden Cecil Smithers (played by Peter MacNeill) begs Petey to do something to stop the screaming and get the man to come down, Petey bargains for his release and then ends the charade by saying, “If yo don’ come down, ah’m goin’ call yo motha.” Talk to Me also is a mini-biopic of Dewey Hughes (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a WOL radio executive who visits his own brother Milo (played by Mike Epps) in Lorton, where he meets Petey and promises him a job when he is released. Subsequently Dewey arranges to hire Petey as an iconoclastic morning talk show host (where he answers calls with the phrase “Talk to me!”), and then manages his career on a local television interview show. The two men, though born in the public housing projects of Washington, dc, represent two very different African American role models. Petey speaks with a Southern Black accent, has a natural eloquence as an rapper, has been in trouble with the law, flaunts his sexy girlfriend Vernell (played by Taraji P. Henson), and never forgets his roots in the projects. Dewey has long modeled himself on Johnny Carson, speaks standard English, goes to college, but persuades his boss, E. G. Sonderling (played by Martin Sheen), to hire the unorthodox Petey with a resulting skyrocketing in listeners as he reinvents talk radio with refreshing candor.

In time, Dewey arranges for Petey to appear as guest comedian on Carson’s Tonight Show. However, Petey feels out of his element in front of Carson’s audience of Whites and says so, blowing his chances to become a national celebrity, whereupon Petey and Dewey break up. Dewey fires Petey, but Dewey’s regrets at his impulsiveness are soon manifested in an emulation of Petey as the new morning talk show host who “tells it like it is.” Later, Dewey buys WOL and returns to the slums in order to apologize to Petey, evidently not long before his death. Credits at the end indicate that Dewey now lives in Hollywood as a television producer. The biopic is particularly eloquent in demonstrating the racism that held down both Dewey and Petey. On April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated, the anger and frustration in the African American community erupts in form of vandalism of businesses in the nation’s capital, whereupon a transformed Petey rises to the moment, goes on the air to express the emotions of African Americans and urges, successfully, for the violence to stop, especially after he announces that he will host a memorial concert in the streets of Georgetown featuring James Brown, well known as the godfather of soul music. Talk to Me also demonstrates how African Americans were mobilized by Reverend King in the 1960s to demand their rights, and thereby film director Kasi Lemmons implicitly asks why the streets are silent today. Petey’s role in the protest movement is more thoroughly documented in the biography Laugh If You Like, Ain't a Damn Thing Funny: The Life Story of Ralph "Petey" Greene as Told to Lurma Rackley (2003). MH

The annual membership meeting of the Political Film Society will take place at noon on Saturday, August 11, ata 8481 Allenwood Road, Hollywood, CA.