Beliefnet
The Bible and Culture

For some time now Don Cheadle has been one of my favorites actors. I especially appreciated his work in Hotel Rwanda, but of course the Oceans movies have been fun as well. But in ‘Talk to Me’ Don Cheadle has to rise to a considerable challenge– playing the combustible D.J. Petey Greene, made famous by his work in D.C. from the late 60s into the 70s.

In an age before Shock Jocks, and simply radio in bad taste, there were some pretty far out D.J.s, ranging from Wolfman Jack to Rick Dees (of ‘Disco Duck’ and Greensboro N.C. fame), to Petey Greene. I ought to know, I was in the business of working for the Record Bar, selling records and promoting concerts back then. I listened to the shtick of a lot of these dudes. Right On.

Greene has been credited with talking D.C. down from burning the whole of Washington down during the uprising on the days after Martin Luther King was shot in 1968, and indeed he did help, for sure, in helping people keeping it cool and keeping it ‘real’.

The story of Petey Greene is a remarkable one in many ways. How exactly does an ex-con manage to become one of the leading voices of Black radio, and then of the comedy club circuit, and then even on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show (a gig he blew off because he was out of his element, but also because he didn’t want to play Step n’ Fetchit for an overwhelmingly white audience)?

This movie tells that story in impressive fashion, and it cuts no corners. But then Petey wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. The most memorable scene in the movie is when Petey takes the mike on the night King was assassinated and contrasts himself with Martin Luther King in a totally self-effacing way, and brings the temperature in the town down from boiling point, to simmering. His painful honesty was precisely what it was that won him the respect of the audience he had. It is interesting how people sometimes respect honesty, telling it as you see it, more than they do truth, which can be painful.

At the heart of this movie however is the story of a relationship between a African American radio man Dewey Hughes, who meets Petey Greene whilst visiting his brother in prison, and becomes his entree to a legitimate career, and eventually becomes his manager. In a sense, this is as much a story about Dewey Hughes (who has actually won various Emmys, and is still writing and producing music in L.A. today) as about Petey Greene. With Greene being played by Cheadle and Hughes by the equally competent Chjwetel Ejiofor, this movie cooks right along. Add in a fine secondary part played by Martin Sheen as the owner of WOL radio station and the cast is fully up to playing this story for all it is worth. They have the period feel just right, the clothes just right, the music just right, and the social turmoil spot on. It brought back a lot of memories– both good and bad.

Now in the spirit of Petey Greene I have to keep it real and tell you this movie has an R rating for its ‘colorful’ language, yet it is certainly worth watching as a period piece and for the fine acting. For those of you who did not go through the Civil Rights era, and don’t get it, this is a fine movie to help you see what some of the issues and problems were, especially from an African American perspective. And I have little doubt that Don Cheadle is going to get some Oscar consideration for his performance in this movie, and deservedly so. The critics are about 80% thumbs up for this one, and that is saying something considering how jaundiced some of those folks are.

In the end, this movie helps us reflect on whether Dr. King’s legacy has managed to seep into American culture enough to make us less racist now than we used to be. Most would say that it has. I remember the days in the old south when you would go to a gas station and there would be three bathrooms– men, women, and ‘colored’. Thank God those days are gone. But racism, like so many besetting sins that plague the hearts of fallen humans is a sin that like kudzu keeps cropping up and needing to be cut down again. This movie reminds us why that is still the ‘righteous’ and ‘Christian’ thing to do.