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Here is a biopic that knows what it is. Petey Greene, an ex-con with a voice, gets his chance to speak to a city and use his one true gift, the one thing he enjoys and is good at besides being a miscreant. Kasi Lemmons never tries to tell us about Petey or his manager Dewey Hughes’ past history to get them to where we start the film. Besides what they tell each other, the film being shown encompasses the start of what would be a tight friendship until Greene’s early death. Talk to Me is about the voice and the courage that these two men allowed to be given to the public during a time of change and political turmoil. Yes we are shown the rise and inevitable fall of a real-life person, but unlike most biographies that fail, this film doesn’t dwell on the hard times, but instead decides to not really show them. One’s fall from grace ushers the other’s rise to glory, however, the two never forget what they did together. They never lose a grasp on the fact that neither would have been anything without the other.

Petey Greene was the voice that united a Washington DC torn apart by Vietnam and Civil Rights. He said what producer Dewey Hughes didn’t have the guts to say, but wanted to, and Hughes did what Greene was too afraid to do by himself. This is the dynamic of the film and the core of everything that transpires. The high points are because both are working on the same pace, doing what they do best. As for the low points, they occur when both can’t handle the fact that they aren’t doing it by themselves. Hughes wishes Greene was his brother, taking his gift for humor and public speaking and using it for good rather than wasting away in a jail cell. Greene wishes he could be more than the convict he is, but when given the chance by Hughes, he does what he is asked and tells the truth—that he is a criminal the world isn’t ready for. Dewey was right about one thing, though, the world was waiting for a man like Greene; it was Petey who wasn’t ready for the world.

While I can’t quite praise Lemmons for a successful biopic that never falls into the traps inherent in them, I can praise her craftwork. I mean the reason she doesn’t fall flat on the downfall is that she refuses to show it. This works in one respect because she has another lead to carry the load once her first leaves the film, however, this act kind of subverts the whole story that is being told. It might be looked upon as an easy out, but nevertheless it does work on the level of keeping the story going without a lull of the same old tragedy we always see in these films. With that said, though, Lemmons orchestrates some amazing sequences. Between the pool scene where Hughes shows what he is really made of and the riots with subsequent radio broadcast post MLK Jr’s assassination, we are given some very powerful moments. Sure these guys are a perfect fit for the comedic jabs, and there are plenty, but they are also very serious about the roles they have in media. No matter where they came from, they are able to stand up and unite the city in hope and make them realize that the destruction goes against all they have been fighting for.

I don’t know how the film could have succeeded without both Don Cheadle (Greene) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Hughes). These two are powerhouses here and show why they are two of the best actors working in the business today. Pitch-perfect in both the high and low times, these guys never falter or disrespect their characters. Cheadle has the swagger and the attitude to show what Greene was made of, but also the emotional range to express the pain of his existence. It is not drugs or alcohol that commence his descent from glory; it is the lack of faith in himself as someone more than a street crook. His skyrocketing to fame was too fast and his friend’s confidence wasn’t enough to keep him going for gold. Whereas Greene looked to talk to his people, Hughes looked to take on the world. Thankfully, Greene’s candor allowed Hughes to be able to open up and do it on his own. Ejiofor shows amazing range to make it all work. From his Johnny Carson imitation in order to fit in on the corporate world level, to his street roots mentality mixed with business savvy, to his alter ego radio voice (laughable “properness” at the start and coolly confident at the end), he plays all the personalities that Hughes needed to keep separate in order for his life to work.

Those two guys of course carry the film. However, the numerous supporting roles help round out the drama at hand. Martin Sheen is priceless as the forward thinking radio owner, willing to get the right personnel to get back to the people, but still keeping classic “white” phrases as blue-blazes and hoodwinked in his vocabulary to crack up Greene. Taraji P. Henson shows how much she deserves to really get any part she wants. Ever since Hustle and Flow, I truly have enjoyed each role I have seen her play. A final note for Lemmons as director would be her ability to rein in some characters for small, yet crucial roles. Both Cedric the Entertainer and Mike Epps have the ability to go over board. With their small roles here, though, Cedric is very good as the somewhat over-the-top “Nighthawk” and Epps is fantastic as the brother that Hughes wishes he could have helped earlier on. All around, Talk to Me is a wonderful film to experience a slice of life that you may not remember or may have never known about.

Talk to Me 8/10

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photography:
[1] Don Cheadle (left) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (right) star in Kasi Lemmons’ TALK TO ME, a Focus Features release. Photo Stephane Fontaine
[2] Taraji P. Henson as Vernell and Don Cheadle as Ralph ‘Petey’ Greene in Focus Features’ Talk to Me. Photo Credit: Michael Gibson © 2006 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

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