I’m not sure how much of Kasi Lemmons’ Talk to Me is accurate or sheer invention, but for the first hour, I didn’t much care. As I watched the rapid ascent of one Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene (Don Cheadle), a convicted felon with an unnatural gift of gab, the portrayal became so riveting that I ignored the obvious conventions being set up like so many dominoes. Like a hundred biopics before it, Talk to Me is little more than a starting low point hitting that expected high, shortly followed by the rapid decline, but for once, the character was more than the unspooling of a highlight reel. I expect this is because I was unfamiliar with Greene or his legacy, due to the fact that his reign predated my actual life and ability to understand what in the hell he was talking about. Greene ruled the Washington, D.C. airwaves during the late 1960s and early 1970s, finally making the transition to television before his death from cancer in 1984. He briefly flirted with national prominence due to his fearless, uncompromising style, but for the most part, he was a local celebrity; pushing the envelope in a city that too often ignored its predominantly black population. In a sense, I was glad his name was obscure to me, even if I suspected that Hollywood – being Hollywood – would rely on oversimplification and distortion to tell his tale. As such, I relished the opportunity to spend some time with a man who hadn’t been covered to death, with the potential surprises that such a journey entails.
And for much of the first half, the delight seemed never-ending, as Greene’s ostentatious manner seemed to redefine charisma right before my eyes. Cheadle’s performance is arguably his best yet, injecting the role with just the right amount of passion, pain, self-pity, and arrogance in order to make him more than a half-baked icon. Consider Greene’s first move after being released from prison: taking the station producer Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) at his word, he shows up with girlfriend and demands the job he believes is his due. The station manager (Martin Sheen) is horrified, Dewey even more so, and the event so outrageous that it strains credibility. Surely it didn’t happen this way. Greene is then rebuffed, which forces him to take to the streets in protest, where he sets up a “march” outside the radio station’s office. Greene is a complete asshole throughout the whole ordeal, as any business worth its salt would think twice about hiring an ex-con without any experience in broadcasting, but the man won’t take no for an answer, which is about the only way to explain how an uneducated criminal managed to flirt with national stardom. A bit later, Greene and Hughes meet at a pool hall where, of course, everything is decided by a bet. Before the game is over, though, Greene is raked over the coals in justifiable fashion, even if what is said goes in one ear and out the other. But even if this guy is a creep, Dewey is not about to let a genuine talent go to waste.
Greene’s primary hook is his authenticity, which comes from a life of poverty, discrimination, crime, and jail, as well as numerous friendships with pimps, whores, drug dealers, and assorted deadbeats. Because he’s been to the very bottom again and again, he understands the pain most blacks in America endure every single day, and he’s just the man to tell their story with grit and realism. Or is he? A little post-movie investigation revealed controversy unexplored by the movie, as it appears Greene was a con man in all senses of the word. Not only did Greene hustle to make a living, but much of his past appears to have been fabricated to enhance his “legend.” This seems understandable, given that criminals learn how to lie for survival and often forget how to turn off the spigot, but it colors the film’s portrayal and ultimate honesty. Greene was no doubt gifted as a storyteller (his wordplay and cutting humor were undeniable), but why distort one’s biography? Did he not trust his own life to be sufficiently interesting for a radio audience? Alas, the film takes Greene’s words as gospel, and though conceding a streak of recklessness and self-destructive vanity, face value wins out over a more nuanced approach. Fortunately, Cheadle is so damned winning that by and large, such nitpicking remains irrelevant.
Sure, it’s hard to tell if this is simply a case of being sideswiped by all the great music (60s-era R&B is hard to beat), clothes, and hairstyles (as well as some bona fide mutton chops), but much more than that, this is an audience rooting for a character’s success. He’s easy to hate, after all, given his sense of entitlement, but he earns his chops, not only by boosting ratings and generating bags of fan mail, but adding spice and depth to the otherwise bland airwaves. Maybe he was little more than an early shock jock, but he injected just the right amount of politics into his funhouse, which is something his later disciples (like Howard Stern) studiously avoid. The level of scathing on-screen commentary was a bit anemic by my standards, but I can appreciate the fact that too much might become irritatingly preachy. Still, if Greene was a voice for the dispossessed, it would have been nice to hear what had the power elite shaking in their boots. Spending a great deal of time at the microphone might have stopped the film cold, at least narratively, but Greene’s words are, presumably, why we’re here.
The most time we spend with him while on air is the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination, when D.C. (like so many cities across the country) erupted in violence. Unexpectedly, Greene took to the airwaves with restraint and compassion, even though his personal pain threatened to spill over into righteous anger. At that moment, Greene understood the true legacy of King’s life, and to argue for any other course save peaceful protest would have been a failure for the entire civil rights movement. These brief flashes are captured with a genuine feel for the time, as well as the emotional sucker punch the event no doubt produced for much of the country. Again, I have no knowledge as to the accuracy of the portrayal, but if reasonably close, Greene deserves a great deal of respect for doing the right thing at a time when it would have been very easy to go the other way. For a few hours, he wasn’t a criminal, an ex-con, or even a black man; he was a disembodied, yet painfully intimate voice that could comfort, soothe, and heal the wounds of a nation. Perhaps no one could have done it better.
As for Greene’s life apart from the studio, it is reduced to a cheap affair here, a drunken dance in his underwear there, and for all we see, it must be assumed that the on-air persona differed little from the actual man. This seems impossible, of course, but given Greene’s life as a hustler, it might not be far from the truth. Having spent decades trying to talk his way in and out of trouble, verbal dexterity becomes the only method of survival. And why bother with the “other side” of Greene’s life? Must he walk the walk to be taken seriously as a DJ? It would all be unnecessary speculation at best, and the sort of cheap psychoanalysis that tries to kill our heroes by saddling them with ordinary (and dull) afflictions. Greene vomits from nerves, doubts his abilities, and seems incapable of altruistic thoughts, let alone actions, and anything else is pointless. Still, the movie pushes along to the expected “psycho-drama” by dealing with Greene’s later success. To be a local hotshot is one thing, but The Tonight Show? At this point, Hughes was acting as his manager, and the Carson gig was, if we are to believe the movie, the last piece of the puzzle. Hit this mark, Hughes tells him, and the rest is gravy. From here on out, movies, concerts, and well-paying gigs will follow like a tidal wave.
Needless to say, Greene blows it – on purpose. Though he never says it out loud, the self-sabotage appears to result from the belief that by going legit, he was making a joke out of his life. In a nutshell, he was “playing nigger” for a largely white audience. They were laughing at him rather than with him, as in his comfort zone of Washington. After all, if one’s entire gig is based on sticking it to The Man and living the authentic life, won’t fame and fortune put a bit of distance between the real thing and its representation? It’s one of the cruel twists of celebrity that as you become more prominent, the very things that brought you out of the shadows become less real and more a part of “the act.” Does anger resonate if the source of that anger isn’t living what he speaks? At that moment, it all seemed to hit Greene like a bullet: he’d been co-opted like all the rest. Stripped of his audacity and shorn of his racially tinged bite, he was now like J.J. on Good Times: undignified comic relief amid social and political commentary to keep the white sponsors from bolting. He wasn’t on the air to make white people comfortable; his goals always involved a decided lack of comfort, backed up by the idea that the establishment had no fucking clue what was really going on. But Carson? What would his fellow inmates say?
The final scenes find our hero down and out, alienated from former friends and colleagues alike, and awaiting a grim death. It’s an especially cheap, eye-rolling turn when Dewey meets up with Greene in the same pool hall, only to hear that “cough of doom” that has spelled the end in at least three thousand cinematic cases. We had to expect an early demise, after all, given a life that saw alcoholism, chain-smoking, and heroin use, but why the hammer-blow reminder straight from the annals of cheap melodrama? The death did come after a scattershot second half, however, and by that time, it seemed perfunctory and a bit welcome. Perhaps no film, even that based loosely on a man’s life, can ever be expected to sustain the highs of a first act. And while a sassy, jazzed up introduction depressingly settled in for a familiar ride, I couldn’t shake a tinge of sadness as the credits rolled. No, not for Greene’s life per se, but rather for what he represents. A man like Greene, now largely ignored by all but the most devoted fans, once blazed a path of importance through American life. He visited the Carter White House, walked the streets a celebrity, and against all odds, changed a mind or two along the way. He mattered. And just as quickly, and with equal force, he was forgotten. It’s more than that transient nature of fame, then, it’s the disposable nature of our cultural life itself; the near-maniacal imperative where all that surrounds us is so fleeting and impermanent as to stifle lasting connection. Greene, like so many before and so many to come, hit a nerve for a time, and for his troubles, had to take his turn in oblivion. We can only take so much truth, it seems, before we have to change the channel.