This marvelous film is one of those rare cases where everything that could have gone wrong—and there was a lot of potential for that—instead went miraculously right. With the exception of Eve’s Bayou (1997), there was nothing that suggested that Kasi Lemmons had a movie like this in her. Screenwriters Michael Genet (She Hate Me) and Rick Famuyiwa (Brown Sugar) offered even less cause for high expectations. And then there’s the whole “based on true events” business, which more often than not these days is an almost certain signal that we’re about to get dowsed with oceans of syrupy uplift whether we like it or not. If there’s anything Talk to Me isn’t, it’s syrupy. It’s uplifting in a sense, and it’s moving, but it’s those things precisely because it crackles with life and honesty in a way no picture I’ve seen in 2007 has.
A large measure of the film’s success comes down to its dream of a cast. There are no finer actors out there than Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and certainly Taraji P. Henson (Hustle & Flow) and Martin Sheen are in the running. Cast properly—as they are here—Cedric the Entertainer and Mike Epps are pretty darn respectable, too. But a cast—no matter how good—can’t make a movie this good without strong writing and direction, which is exactly what they have in this case.
The film tells the story of Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene (Cheadle), a convict who barters his way out of prison (a good joke that turns into an even better one) and then blusters and bluffs his way into a radio gig on a Washington, D.C., radio station where his forthright manner of speech makes him into a celebrity. In essence, the film is a biopic that charts “Petey” Greene’s rise and fall in what could have been a fairly trite manner. All the genre clichés are there—the drinking, the drugs, the womanizing, the inability to handle sudden fame—but Talk to Me goes out of its way to become something more, something larger, something with the ring of truth and authenticity.
Rather than simply being a biopic about Greene, it’s every bit as much about the radio station manager, Dewey Hughes (Ejiofor), who took a chance on him (largely against his own better judgment) and who helped guide his career. In many ways, it’s a story about their friendship and a portrait of the era in which the events took place. It is every inch a movie that takes the hard road, not the easy one.
It would have been so easy to present the well-spoken, educated, sophisticated Hughes as a simplistic Uncle Tom, who needed Greene to bring him into contact with his roots, and yet this is a notion the film debunks at every turn. First of all, Greene has completely misread Hughes, likening him to Sidney Poitier’s screen persona and mocking him with a variant on Poitier’s “They call me Mister Tibbs.” (OK, so the line is from In the Heat of the Night, a film made in 1967, which would hardly be quoted in a scene set in 1966, but it works well.) Greene hasn’t reckoned on the possibility that Hughes shares a background similar to his own, nor has he guessed that Hughes sees Greene’s outspoken quality as a way to make the radio station relevant to its predominately black listeners. It comes down to Hughes’ own assessment of them as a pair that really is what’s at the core of the film: “I need you to say the things I’m afraid to say, and you need me to do the things you’re afraid to do.”
Cheadle’s is the flashier role (no contest), but in many respects Ejiofor’s performance is the more impressive, because it requires a depth of self-knowledge and a sense of humor that has to exist a notch or two below the surface. When late in the film, Hughes admits to Greene’s girlfriend, Vernell (Henson), that he learned everything about style and dress from watching Johnny Carson, she slyly notes that it’s obvious. At that moment, Hughes lets us in on the fact that he’s known it was obvious all along as well simply in the way Ejiofor plays the scene.
It’s a movie comprised of wonderful moments—some comedic, some painful in their tragedy. In one case, Talk to Me goes straight from boisterous bedroom farce (even if it’s set in a radio station) to probably its most brilliant and powerful sequence. Vernell has just “paid back” Greene for cheating on her, by being excessively accommodating to the station’s nighttime DJ, “Nighthawk” Bob Terry (Cedric the Entertainer), so naturally Greene attacks the “Nighthawk.” In the middle of the melee, station owner E.G. Sonderling (Sheen) comes in to announce that Martin Luther King has been assassinated. The scene stops in its tracks and the mood shifts—everything, every ill feeling, old or new, is forgotten in the enormity of shared tragedy. The scenes following where Greene goes back on the air to try to stop the resulting riots and help make some sense of the tragedy for his listeners are the sort of work where you actually feel privileged to have been allowed to watch. This is not something you get very often in a movie—seize it, remember it, treasure it.
That section is the single most remarkable thing in Talk to Me, but it’s far from the only worthy thing in a film that is simply brimming with vitality, creativity, feeling and the finest acting you’ll probably see all year. This one’s an essential. Rated R for pervasive language and some sexual content.