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Catching Up, Pt. 2: Talk to Me

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Catching Up, Pt. 2: <em>Talk to Me</em>

Talk to Me, a biography of pioneering Washington, D.C. disc jockey Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene (Don Cheadle), is a frustrating film—superbly acted, heartfelt, entertaining throughout, but so formulaic in its conception that the two astonishing sequences that unshackle themselves from formula cast an unflattering light on the rest.

The first such sequence occurs early in the film, when the recently-released ex-con Petey and his fiery, devoted girlfriend, Vernell (Taraji P. Henson), meet Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the program director of the R&B music station WOL, at a local poolroom. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss Petey’s relentless badgering of Dewey by means of protests against the station. The protests are ostensibly about the station’s unresponsiveness to the needs of the black (then Negro) community. But they’re really about Petey’s anger that Dewey didn’t give him the job he believes Dewey implicitly promised him years ago when the men first met, during one of Dewey’s trips to visit his own incarcerated brother. Up until the poolroom meeting, Petey has been portrayed as a charismatic, funny hustler and Dewey as a stick-up-the-ass assimilationist, a brother who’s carved out a niche in The Man’s world and doesn’t dare risk losing it by betting on the likes of Petey. The station’s other DJs—morning host Sunny Jim, played by Vondie Curtis-Hall, and deep-voiced love daddy “Nighthawk” Bob Terry, played by Cedric the Entertainer—are very successful but also apolitical, packaged and safe.

Except for the racial aspect of Petey and Dewey’s animosity, which is fascinating but underdeveloped, their dynamic is boringly familiar—the “snobs vs. slobs” contest showcased in comedies from Animal House through pretty much every other Robin Williams film from Good Morning Vietnam on—not to mention the Howard Stern biography Private Parts, which the first half of Talk to Me too often resembles. The terrific poolroom scene revises, nearly shatters, what came before. Dewey makes a nine-ball bet with Petey: if Petey wins the game, he gets a job, and if Dewey wins, Petey must agree to walk away and never bother Dewey again. Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) and screenwriters Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa give the sequence to Dewey, who lets slip a few facts that contradict Petey’s (and our) preconceptions: he grew up in the ghetto and spent a fair amount of time in poolrooms, which is why he’s about to kick Petey’s ass. Suddenly Petey’s cocky baiting of Dewey as a Sidney Poitier wannabe (Petey even sneeringly calls him “Mister Tibbs”) seems singularly clueless; Dewey’s life demonstrates principles of success that Petey could never understand and has never had cause to consider. “Negroes always think that if you speak correct English and wear suits other than clown suits, then you’re not real,” he says before he sinks the four ball in the side pocket. As Dewey stalks around the table, sinking ball after ball—nearly every tricky shot showcased in a single take by Lemmons, so that you know that Ejiofor, not a double, is handling the cue stuck—he schools Petey in every sense.

But the biggest surprise is yet to come: Petey, Dewey and Vernell linger in the bar after Petey’s defeat, drinking and shooting the shit, letting their respective facades fall. Dewey admits to growing up in the projects. Petey talks about his lifelong desire to be on the radio, how he scammed his prison warden into letting him do announcements, and how his aunt provided him with the first record he ever played on the air for his fellow inmates: Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Vernell reflexively tries to shill for Petey, and he tenderly raises a hand and holds her jaw as if to physically stop her from talking—a wonderful gesture amplified by the look of love and support that passes between them. In this scene, Petey doesn’t sound at all like the spotlight-hogging, motormouth, blacker-than-thou firebrand; Dewey doesn’t sound like the emotionally constipated, broadcast-standard-English-speaking company man. There are true selves, unguarded selves, inside both men, and they open up and let them be seen. The poolroom sequence dramatizes basic questions that movies rarely ask: Do we have one self or many? If many, then which self is our “true” self? Are the selves that we construct over a lifetime means to an end or roles that subsume us?

From the minute Dewey sinks his first ball through the end of this conversation, it’s a stunning sequence—and for a commercial American feature, a nearly revolutionary one—because it questions the very idea of authenticity, the starting point for nearly every argument about race, class and cultural appropriation in art or entertainment; and it does it in character, so to speak, encoding its political points within banter that moves the plot forward and enriches the characters even as it places their struggles within a wider context. This sequence shows us that Petey’s quick-witted, cynical, me-first posturing is as much a construct (forged by society and shaped by Petey) as the Poitier-like aura of impregnable dignity that Dewey shows in meetings with WOL’s owner (Martin Sheen) and the station’s mostly white executive staff—and that both postures are necessary and equally valid defense mechanisms for black Americans trying to survive and succeed in the United States. (An interesting directorial choice: Except for a brief medium shot showing Vernell, Petey and Dewey within the same frame, every other shot in the conversation sequence shows either Vernell with Petey, or Dewey by himself. Petey and Dewey reach out to each other with words, but they are not yet united in spirit. The cuts suggest the invisible wall that separates them.)

The poolroom scene and its aftermath also make a storytelling promise that Talk to Me unfortunately isn’t prepared to deliver on: it sets up the movie as a dialectical drama about assimilation (represented by Dewey) and separatism (represented by Petey), and how the conflict between those two impulses defined black American history, and American history. By rights, everything that follows should build on the information brought to light in the poolroom; instead, Talk to Me reverts more or less to formula, embodying our preconceptions about the Hollywood biographical drama when it ought to explode them. The movie’s specialness recedes from the moment that a drunk Petey goes out onstage to introduce a benefit concert by James Brown the night after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. This scene, like most scenes in the movie, and like most scenes in most showbiz biopics, validates Hollywood’s apparently unshakable belief that self-destructive entertainers are fascinating. The first part of the movie stuck pretty close to the the usual iconoclast-versus-conformists narrative, the same one that studios have sold us ever since the late ’70s, redefining counter-cultural alienation as wiseass swagger, and fusing two high school stereotypes: the class clown and the bad-ass jock. The second half of Talk to Me is about an entertainer screwing up his success; that would usually be enough to power a dramatic feature if we hadn’t seen, mere minutes earlier—in the second great scene, the MLK sequence, which I’ll describe shortly—proof that the genre is capable of more. Petey’s disintegration (and more so, the disintegration of Dewey’s career as his manager) is based on fact, and emotionally affecting, but it’s nowhere near as electric as the film’s earlier unpacking of Dewey’s and Petey’s complex identities. The film has a gift for dramatizing the intersection of history and personal experience. Few movies even try to do do that; fewer do it well.

The worst one can say against Talk to Me is that it had greatness within its reach but didn’t grasp it. It could have replicated Petey’s achievement—reflecting reality through media—on a wider scale. In the film, Dewey relents and hires Petey—and then returns to support him when he periodically fails or screws up—because he recognizes that Petey’s genius resides in his status as a conduit for the everyday truth of working class and poor black folks’ lives. As Petey tells Dewey—in the scene where he characterizes Motown founder Berry Gordy as a pimp on the air, is chastised by Dewey, then offers an apology that’s not really an apology—all he does is take the stuff that black folks talk about in the world and put it on the air. He shows the world its reflection. The mere act of doing that validates everyday black experience and exposes unfamiliar or unpopular opinions to the wider world—makes them part of the national black experience, the American experience, the human experience, rather than something that a handful of people talked about in a diner or a barber shop. Talk to Me should have been conceived in a similar spirit; as is, it’s just a better-than-average self-destructive entertainer biopic with many good scenes and two great ones.

I’ve already described the first great sequence, the poolroom; the second, the assassination sequence, is greater still. Petey goes on the air and expresses the incredulity and pain of his community; then he learns that riots have started (“They’re burning it down,” a fellow employee reports) and goes outside with Dewey to observe the madness—lootings, arson, assaults. Then he returns to the mike. “Y’all hurting,” he tells his listeners. “I know how angry you are. You want revenge. Want that quart of blood. And I don’t blame you…Look outside and tell me what you see. You see a city on fire. That’s my city. That’s your city. And that’s not what Dr. King would have wanted…I went to jail because I was a knucklehead. Dr. King went to jail because of what he stood for, fought for and died for. And this ain’t it, y’all.”

The MLK sequence deftly links the conflict between establishment man Dewey and hardcase rebel Petey to the psychic state of America, particularly black America, after King’s murder. Just as the assassination temporarily sidelined class resentment and united King’s admirers in fury and sadness, it temporarily halts conflicts between Dewey and Petey, Dewey and his bosses, Petey and Vernell (whom he’d cheated on earlier), Petey and his resentful fellow DJs. Lemmons and her screenwriters give the event the weight it deserves and then some. The only misstep is Terence Blanchard’s music, which is fine elsewhere; here should have roused itself to the peaks of mournful fury heard in sections of Blanchard’s extraordinary score for Malcolm X, but it settles for smooth-jazz doldrums.

There are thoughtful compositions and camera moves throughout. When Petey begins speaking, one shot begins focused on a photograph of Dr. King on the wall behind Petey, then refocuses to reveal Petey at the mike in the foreground, a move that visually links King to Petey and gives the sense that King’s spirit has entered him.

When Petey finishes his marathon stint and cues up “A Change is Gonna Come” (a Civil Rights movement touchstone, likewise employed in the tragic last act of Malcolm X) the camera pans from Petey at the mic to reveal Dewey looking at Petey through the studio glass. The unbroken camera move is the antithesis of, and the reply to, the cuts that separated Petey and Dewey in the poolroom. The pan from Petey to Dewey—timed to the third word of the opening phrase of “A Change is Gonna Come,” Cooke’s plaintive “boooooooorn”—shows that despite their superficial differences, on this day they inhabit they same psychic space. The invisible wall has fallen.

When Petey finally leaves the booth, he gets a round of applause. But it’s not the standard “Your greatness makes us realize our own smallness” slow clap—the reward Hollywood routinely bestows on its wacky truth-telling iconoclastic heroes. It’s an exhausted tribute, and the smiles on the onlookers’ faces suggest that they are simply recognizing an important job done well at great emotional cost—that it’s not a great performance that’s being acknowledged at this moment but the catastrophic loss that summoned it.

Petey signs off that broadcast by quoting King: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.” In subsuming his firecracker persona, speaking from the heart and demonstrating more concern for the world than for himself, Petey has lived up to King’s quote, and shown through his example that King’s vision did not die with King. More moving still is the shattering punchline of this sequence: Petey goes downstairs—Sam Cooke rising in volume—and sees that for all the good he did, the city is still on fire. He returns to Vernell, who has been up all night listening to his broadcast. She looks distraught and worn-out. She has a pistol in one hand. She doesn’t care about what Petey did to her before; she’s just glad to see him alive. She embraces Petey and says, “You did good, baby.” She never lets go of her gun.

To read the first article in this series—about American Gangster, Mr. Untouchable and We Own the Night—click here.