Don Cheadle is one of the best character actors working today, but Talk to Me could mark the first time that his skill at breathing unique life into a performance goes unfortunately head to head with his director. Cheadle’s had the good fortune to work with some genuine modern auteurs, and the films he’s made with P.T. Anderson and Steven Soderbergh have allowed Cheadle enough breathing room to craft small but enjoyable characters: bullheaded ex-con Maurice Miller in Out of Sight, the brief glimpses of Basher Tarr in the Ocean’s Eleven series, and especially Buck Swope in Boogie Nights, in which Cheadle was able to convey so much of character’s sadness and naivete through subtle through just his eyes. But all that’s not to say that Kasi Lemmons is a bad filmmaker, or that Talk to Me is a bad film; she’s not, and it really isn’t. But what starts out as a comedic drama grinning with life eventually loses its central focus on Cheadle’s turn in the true story of 1960s deejay Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene and becomes lost in a maze of good intentions and murky storytelling. By the end of the film, it’s as if Cheadle’s character has been shoved to the background; instead of revolving around him as it once did, the film slowly passes him by.
Petey Greene is in prison when the film opens in May 1966, spinning a few records for his fellow inmates over the PA system when Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an executive at an R&B radio station in Washington D.C, comes to visit his brother, Milo (Mike Epps), who’s serving 20 years to life. Lemmons sets up the differences between the two men well enough, but relies more on viewer instinct than visual keys when establishing the tone of the story. Hughes is a black man in a swanky suit, and while he’s clearly uncomfortable at the prison and embarrassed at having to be there, but Lemmons doesn’t highlight the racial tension inherent in the situation. Hughes bolts after sitting with his brother for only a few moments, but Petey manages to flag him down in the hall and inquire about any open deejay positions. The first interaction between Cheadle and Ejiofor is fantastic, both of them so at home in their mutual characters that they seem to be merely playing off each other instead of acting. Hughes manages to dodge Petey’s questions, but before long Petey makes parole, and winds up visiting Hughes’ station one day to ask for a job. Petey shows up with his girlfriend, Vernell (Taraji P. Henson), in tow, causing exactly the kind of scene Hughes finds so embarrassing. Hughes shuts Petey down and turns him away, and Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa’s script lets Petey lash out at Hughes for being the kind of “Sidney Poitier-ass nigga” who kowtows to white culture, as evidenced by Hughes’ clean manner of dressing and precise enunciation. There’s a legitimate conflict here, between two different views of what it means to be a black man at the height of the civil rights movement, but Lemmons never digs deep enough into the material, content to simply mention the issue before moving on. In fact, the only reason Hughes later relents and offers Petey a job isn’t just because, as he says, Petey will say the things Hughes is too afraid to say, but because he embodies a whole new way of being that Hughes hasn’t even considered before. But Lemmons goes a little too broad, focusing more on the mechanics of the story than the emotions that drive them, and as a result some of the finer points get lost in the shuffle.
Petey lands the morning talk show slot at Hughes’ station, run by E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen), a stern but not unkind boss who’s willing to give Petey a shot because he trusts Hughes. But is that trust because Hughes is young and makes a believable case about being connected to the community, or because Hughes is black and probably knows how best to run an R&B station in the late 1960s? Where does the line begin to blur between shrewd businessman and social progressive? It’s not a bad question, but again, it’s one that the film never seems to consider worth discussing, and it turns what could have been a smart drama into merely an easy one. Of course, Lemmons is helped along the way by the soundtrack, a fantastic collection of soul and pop from the era that still resonate so well on film that they automatically communicate the kind of story we want to remember about that period in American history; see, for example, Forrest Gump, which is a narrative strung together by nothing more than Boomer rock and fuzzy memories. Still, the music is fantastic, ranging from “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell and the Drells to Gloria Jones’ original “Tainted Love.” The music never stops in the film, flowing through the requisite montages of Petey’s building fame until the film’s darkest moment, and the turning point at which the heretofore competent narrative begins to crack under its own weight: the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., after which Petey hosts an hours-long show in which he encourages his listeners to keep hoping for the better and waiting for the light. He signs off with Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” and for just a moment the confluence of history, storytelling, and musical genius add up to something big, and sad, as if Lemmons is channeling the horror of that actual day almost 40 years ago.
But after such an emotionally unifying sequence, Lemmons seems to run out of steam, and the splintering narrative does its best to keep up with Petey’s burgeoning national profile and the curious relationship between a man who shuns stardom and the manager who tries to experience that fame vicariously. It’s as if Lemmons suddenly decides to stop making a story about a part of Petey’s life and instead document the whole thing, which leads to increasingly shortened attempts at character development in favor of covering more historical ground. Entire plot points are dealt with in expository scenes lasting only a second or two, and attempts to age the actors by 15 years to capture the passage of time look either phony, as in the fake goatee applied to Ejiofor, or are nonexistent, as in Cheadle’s lack of gray hair, weight, makeup, or anything else that would convincingly make him look older.
Such mistakes aside, Ejiofor is still a perfect fit for the role, exuding the quiet dignity he’s brought to his performances in everything from Dirty Pretty Things to Serenity; it often feels as if he’s glided in from some other movie. The awkward exuberance he brings to the role as he gets closer to attaining his dreams is a subtly beautiful thing, as Ejiofor proves how courageous it is to be purposefully gawky in character. And Cheadle manages to be similarly wonderful in smaller moments, especially the mix of bemusement and worry with which Petey regards Hughes as Hughes grows more stereotypically “blacker,” embodying Petey’s characteristics as if he were donning a popular costume. But those moments are few and hard to catch. For all her clear devotion to the subject matter, Lemmons can’t bring herself to reach any real conclusions in the film or even ask the tougher questions for which Petey was known and respected. The fact that the real-life Hughes would later go on to be involved with Radio One, a national corporation that targets urban listeners, is interesting in light of the scene in the film in which Ejiofor’s Hughes warned against the dangers of “becoming the establishment,” but it’s unlikely Lemmons ever considered the parallel. After trampling over Cheadle to get to the broader story, she never knows what to do with it. But at least it sounds good.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Static on the Dial
Film | July 20, 2007 | Comments ()