TALK TO ME (2007)
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Cast: Don Cheadle, Chiwetal Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen, Cedric the Entertainer, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Mike Epps
MPAA Rating: (for pervasive language and some sexual content)
Running Time: 1:58
Release Date: 7/13/07 (limited); 7/27/07 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
Director Kasi Lemmons, whose hypnotic 1997 Eve's Bayou is still one of the best directorial debuts in a while, goes more mainstream with her third film. Talk to Me is a biopic with a strong sense of character and period—enough for the film to stand out from the crowd but only occasionally rise above it. The story of Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene is of one of the first shock jocks but one who stood for something other than ratings. He's also seen as a troubled man, dealing with alcoholism, womanizing, and self doubt, but Lemmons and screenwriters Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa don't linger long on these problems or overplay the development of the two central characters. They let them reveal themselves slowly, almost subconsciously, allowing the relationship between two friends to be the anchor of the story. The first half of Talk to Me builds on the specific thrust of its subject's story, and it leads to a scene portraying the aftermath of a historically, tragically significant event full of such emotional power, the rest of the film cannot keep up with it afterwards. The film's strokes become broader, and while still a fascinating character study, it's significantly lacking what's come before.
Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the other central character here, and at the start of the film in 1966, he is visiting his brother Milo (Mike Epps) at Lorton Prison. Milo wants his brother to hear Greene (Don Cheadle), who serves as a deejay of sorts on the prison's public address system out of the warden's office, but Dewey's visit is only because he promised their mother. When Greene realizes that Dewey works for Washington, D.C. radio station WOL, Greene tells him he'll be working for him as soon as he's released. Well, after he talks a fellow inmate down from one of the prison towers, Greene gets an early release. He and his girlfriend Vernell (Taraji P. Henson) go to WOL, and, after Greene gets over his initial nerves, he confronts Dewey, saying the program director promised the now ex-con a job. After a few awkward moments with the head of the station E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen), Greene is forced out, but he takes his cause to the streets, holding a protest that grows day by day outside of the station. Eventually, Dewey gives him a chance to try his craft in the morning slot.
The dynamic between Greene and Dewey is set up immediately upon their first meeting—the clash between the former's no-holds-barred style and the latter's workman's ethic. Greene's determination in spite of his standing in society and his complete lack of self-censorship makes him vibrant force, and Don Cheadle has so much fun with it in the early scenes, it's a bit startling just how well he brings out the character's darker inner self later on. Lemmons sets up a rollicking tone in the beginning, leading up to a tension-filled tracking shot that follows Greene on his way to his first on-air appearance, during which his nerves get the better of him. He's reckless with words, which gives Sonderling his repeated mantra, "Watch your language." People connect with him; Dewey knows this because he overhears a group at a bar talking about the show. We see hints of Greene's alcoholism and womanizing, which lead him to get closer to Dewey after Vernell kicks him out of the house one night. Lemmons and the screenwriters are smart in the way they portray the steady, growing respect between the two men. It builds naturally, almost unnoticeable, until eventually the two become business partners as well.
Beforehand, though, comes the film's most effective scene, as the station learns of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Greene stays on the radio the entire night; outside, D.C. is in turmoil. Lemmons captures the sense of community that arises from the chaos with such sincerity it's a poignantly realized sequence. Lemmons and editor Terilyn A. Shropshire keep events moving at a brisk pace, and the timeline exists on an intuitive level—years pass without any acknowledgement of where we are. Greene and Dewey move on, and characters disappear without any acknowledgement either. Scenes of success blend with scenes of struggle, and while the relationship between Dewey and Greene and Greene's own discomfort with fame (capitulated to on his scheduled appearance on "The Tonight Show") keep things focused to a degree, the film becomes a string of events without as much connection to the characters. Things between the two men, so obvious without being spoken, are verbalized, and only remnants of the subtlety remain. Most of it belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose effortless performance hints that his attempts with Greene are fuelled by his own fear of having failed his brother.
Then there is Greene himself: a man who wants to do what he loves and has no idea how to handle the success that results. He may be an important figure, but Talk to Me has the respect to see him without idolizing eyes. Or as Vernell says of him, "He's just a guy who likes to run his mouth, and people respond to it."
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.