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Two Powerful Brothers

September 17th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Talk to Me, 2007, poster Talk to Me DVD

Talk to Me (2007)
Screenplay by Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa and Kasi Lemmons (uncredited), story by Michael Genet
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Produced by Pelagius Films/ Mark Gordon Company/ Sidney Kimmel Entertainment
Running time: 118 minutes

So, What’s This About?

At Lorton Reformatory in 1966, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) grudgingly puts in a visit to his convict brother (Mike Epps), fulfilling a promise he made to their mother. Dewey — the enterprising station manager of WOL-AM in Washington D.C. — is intercepted in the waiting room by the loquacious Petey Greene (Don Cheadle). Immensely popular as the prison disc jockey, Petey is serving a 10 year sentence for armed robbery, but doesn’t let this stop him from asking Dewey for a job, while he waits for a conjugal visit from his sassy girlfriend Vernell (Taraji Henson). Dewey dismisses Petey as a “miscreant” and brushes the con off by telling Petey to look him up when he gets out.

Petey wins an early release by talking a prisoner off a water tower, and with Vernell at his side, storms WOL, where his rap doesn’t go over well with Dewey or his boss (Martin Sheen). After being kicked out, Petey organizes a community protest against WOL. Recognizing the potential to tap into the prevailing anti-establishment mood, Dewey gives Petey a shot as a morning deejay. Off-the-cuff remarks about Berry Gordy get him yanked off the air, but Dewey refuses to give up on Petey. Through a successful radio program, a TV talk show and comedy albums, Petey becomes the voice of D.C.’s black community. Dewey gets him booked on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where stardom appears inevitable for Petey Greene.

Talk to Me, 2007, Don Cheadle, Taraji Henson

Who Made It?

Lurma Rackley met Petey Greene in 1981 when she was hired to write an article on the broadcast legend for the Washington North Star. Greene looking for someone to pen his autobiography and was pleased enough with Rackley’s piece to offer her the job. Greene would pass away a year later, long before any book could be finished. Rackley was friends with Dewey Hughes, who by 1991 was a successful TV producer in Los Angeles. Hughes offered to take the material she’d finished and see if he could interest anyone in Hollywood on a Petey Greene biopic. He ultimately hooked producer Joe Fries with the idea. Producer Mark Gordon came on board as well and in June 2000, it was announced that Martin Lawrence had agreed to play Petey Greene.

Unable to reach a deal with Rackley, Joe Fries ignored her research and chose to center the film on Petey Greene’s relationship with Dewey Hughes. Titled Petey Greene’s Washington, a spec script by Hughes’ son Michael Genet was written and set up at Fox. Rick Famuyiwa was brought in for revisions, then Kasi Lemmons, who became more enamored with the project over time and aspired to direct it herself. After several directors in front of her passed, Lemmons — who’d made a big splash in 1997 writing and directing Eve’s Bayou — won the job, suggesting Don Cheadle for the lead. Talk to Me was put into turnaround by Fox and after several starts and stops, was financed by Sidney Kimmel Entertainment.

Talk to Me, 2007, Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor

How’d They Do It?

Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr. was an ex-con, a disc jockey, a two-time Emmy Award winning host of Petey Greene’s Washington on WDCA, a Washington D.C. community organizer, guest of the White House and in 1981, the subject of an article that freelance writer Lurma Rackley was assigned. When the interview was over, Greene asked Rackley if she’d ever written a book. Greene was looking to pen his autobiography, but collaborations with two or three other writers hadn’t worked out. Rackley had never attempted a book, but Greene was sufficiently impressed with her article and gave Rackley the job. A year into their interviews, Greene would be stricken with liver cancer and pass away at the age of 52.

Rackley recalled, “When he was in the hospital on his final days, he really couldn’t talk anymore — he could just listen; a relative put the phone to his ear so he could hear. I told him I promised I would get the story out.” According to Rackley, Greene’s attorney lost interest in a book, leaving the writer with 60 hours of taped interviews. By 1991, Rackley was press secretary for Mayor Marion Barry and working on the book part-time when she received a call from her friend Dewey Hughes. The conversation got around to Rackley’s work-in-progress. Hughes offered to take what she had so far — an outline, prologue, five chapters — and shop it around Hollywood.

Talk to Me, 2007, Don Cheadle

Seven years later, Hughes hooked producer Joe Fries, who’d grown up in Bethesda watching Petey Greene’s Washington. Fries — who helped launch The Learning Channel — recalled, “I was completely the cultural opposite of Petey. Yet I was drawn to this character on television.” Fries offered to buy Rackley’s unfinished manuscript and her taped interviews, but concerned about how her candid interviews with Greene would be used, Rackley held out for the opportunity to join the movie as a consultant. “Joe and his people didn’t want to negotiate. They wanted me to sign that contract or they didn’t want to work with me at all … It was one of those all-or-nothing things.”

With Lurma Rackley no longer involved — she would self-publish her book, Laugh If You Like, Ain’t A Damn Thing Funny, in 2004 — and without Petey Greene’s life story, Joe Fries backed into the idea of a movie about the friendship between Greene and Dewey Hughes. He compelled Hughes’ son — screenwriter Michael Genet — to write a spec script. Genet recalled, “Joe Fries and executive producer Joey Rappa called and told me they wanted to do a movie about Petey and Dewey. As Joe started talking through the story with me, it all came rushing back like a raging river because I had lived it; my father and his best friend were two powerful brothers and the talk of our town, D.C.”

Talk to Me, 2007, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Don Cheadle

In writing a script about Petey Greene, Michael Genet turned not only to his father’s memories, but his own personal remembrances of Greene. “Whenever he opened his mouth and spoke, I would jump. As funny as he was, even as a boy I could hear the pain in his voice. Listening to him on the radio, I didn’t always understand what he was speaking about. But I couldn’t change that dial; he had me and an entire city mesmerized and hypnotized.” Genet added, “What I found in telling their story was that there is a love shared between black men that we almost never hear tell of. You wont find it defined in any textbooks or dictionaries, yet it exists.”

The script found a fan in Josh McLaughlin at The Mark Gordon Company, who’d also grown up in D.C. McLaughlin recalled, “Hearing Petey’s name, I remembered that there was a community center office dedicated to him. I found it was very difficult, though, to remember a non-blaxploitation movie about an urban city in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. The three Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby movies, beginning with Uptown Saturday Night, did depict that period, and of course there was that great documentary concert film Wattstax. There were also several civil rights pictures, but those were Southern-oriented. Those are all good films, but the Black Is Beautiful era in a world of change has largely gone unexplored. Petey’s story, about speaking your mind, was a window into there.”

Talk to Me, 2007, Don Cheadle

Writer-director phenom Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Brown Sugar) took a crack at the script next. He stated, “What drew me in first was Petey. He was an iconoclast, and a torchbearer of the oral tradition that is an integral part of African-American culture. To me, he represented a bridge between the orators of the civil rights movement and the orators of today, hip-hop musicians. Like a rapper, he was the voice of people who didn’t have a say. What he had to say wasn’t always what people wanted to hear both inside the community and out but it represented a truth he felt had to be expressed. I felt he could be contemporary and relatable to today’s hip-hop-reared generation.”

Kasi Lemmons began her career as an actress — appearing in Candyman and Fear of a Black Hat most memorably — but seeking a challenge beyond just paying the bills, went back to school, enrolling in the film program at the New School for Social Research. She also started writing. Lemmons followed her critically acclaimed gem Eve’s Bayou in 1997 with a disquieting adaptation of George Dawes Green’s novel The Caveman’s Valentine starring Samuel L. Jackson in 2001. She then labored for four years trying to get an adaptation of Jeanette Winterson’s Napoleonic romance The Passion made, but even with Miramax poster girl Gwyneth Paltrow committed, tumultuous times at the studio ultimately squashed the project.

Talk to Me, 2007, Chiwetel Ejiofor

Petey Greene’s Washington came to Lemmons from The Mark Gordon Company as a rewrite. “I read the script years ago, and I respected it, but it didn’t speak my language.” Over time, the material begin speaking to Lemmons. ”I started to hear Petey’s voice in my ear. He was saying: ‘You better direct this thing. Don’t let this out of the house.’ I suddenly fell passionately in love, head over heels. One of the things that happened was the Iraq War. We were invading. People had strong opinions, and they were afraid to say anything. There was fear, you could feel it. People were afraid. I was. So I was attracted to a character who spoke loudly, without censoring, who let the chips fall where they would. There was something about a loud, uncensored, brave voice that attracted me.”

To get the directing job, Lemmons had to wait in line until Fox exhausted the names of the directors in front of her, prestige-wise. She recalled, “Finally I got a meeting. I went in über-prepared. I was very clear in how I wanted it to feel — very alive, very dynamic, immediate. Which is, I believe, how it feels. Instead of looking at the past, have it feel that you could enter it. It would have a movement, a beat. And to put Don Cheadle in it. I knew what people were afraid of — that it might be pretty. I said, ‘I want it to be gorgeous, without being pretty.’ I had to say without saying that I wouldn’t make it feminine. Once I had the movie I never thought about it again.”

Talk to Me, 2007, Don Cheadle

Flush from the success of Hustle & Flow, Terrence Howard was briefly attached to play Petey Greene before agreeing to switch parts with Don Cheadle and take on Dewey Hughes instead. Fox ultimately put Talk to Me into turnaround, but Focus Features picked it up and tentatively agreed to provide financing. Lemmons flew to Toronto in September 2005 and with producer J. Miles Dale, started scouting locations. Lemmons recalled, “When I got to Toronto to shoot the movie we worked for 12 to 14 days, but we started getting a bad feeling around Day 10. We kept it together a few more days, but then things unraveled. There were legal issues in transferring the film from Fox to Focus. It was not a pretty feeling.”

With filming pushed back at least until April 2006, Don Cheadle remained on board, but Terrence Howard had to drop out. Chiwetel Ejiofor read for the role of Dewey Hughes and clicked with Cheadle so well that Lemmons used a rehearsal tape between the actors to secure a new financier. Lemmons recalled, “It’s extremely difficult to get money for films with a predominantly black cast. We were independently financed by Sidney Kimmel Entertainment because a producer there, Bill Horberg, felt passionately about the story but we were extremely lucky.” On a budget of $12.5 million, Talk to Me commenced shooting July 2006 in Hamilton, Canada, which was not only less expensive and less restrictive than D.C., but featured architecture locked in the 1960s.

Talk to Me, 2007, Don Cheadle

After being screened at Cannes in May and the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, Talk to Me opened in limited release July 2007 in the United States. Critics were mostly supportive. Carina Chocano, The Los Angeles Times: “With its R&B soundtrack and footage of civil unrest, Talk to Me might seem to cover familiar ground. But as an intimate portrait of the complex, fruitful and extremely volatile friendship between trailblazing African American men whose daring came to redefine an industry, it’s fresh and revelatory.” Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune:Talk to Me has a great subject and a great actor working in tandem, reminding audiences that once upon a time media personalities used to fight The Man, not be The Man.”

Distributed by Focus Features, Talk to Me never expanded beyond 193 U.S. theaters, where it was held to $4.5 million at home and $245,115 overseas. Disappointed with the box office, Lemmons was energized by her Petey Greene experience. “At the beginning of the Iraq War, people felt scared to say anything because you were going to be labeled ‘unpatriotic.’ People were very, very cautious and I felt like saying, ‘Wake up, goddamitt!’ I felt like screaming at people all the time. Talk to Me is this perfect anti-censorship film in a way. You’ve got this character that is going to tell it. Whether or not that’s a mistake, he’s going to have to judge later — but at the moment that he is speaking it, nothing is censoring him. I thought that was kind of exciting.”

Talk to Me, 2007, Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor

Should I Care?
Talk to Me is at least five different movies and four of them range in quality from “really good” to “great”. There’s a 15-year friendship between two men from different worlds who become hugely successful by trusting each other. There’s a fantastic social document of an urban community in the late ‘60s. There’s a hugely entertaining story about a community radio station — with Cedric the Entertainer (as “Nighthawk” Bob Terry), Vondie Curtis-Hall (as Sunny Jim Kelsey) and Martin Sheen as progressive owner E.G. Sonderling — that rivals anything on WKRP in Cincinnati. There’s also a good story in here about events that overtake an R&B station on the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

By living so many lives in 52 years, the story of Petey Greene was probably never going to gel as a movie, taking creative license with history and losing focus in the last half hour, when Petey’s rise to celebrity isn’t very compelling. That said, Don Cheadle & Chiwetel Ejiofor — two of our best actors — have remarkable chemistry together. The sensational Taraji Henson figures somewhat less into their story, but Cheadle and Taraji can star in every movie as far as I’m concerned. Amid the clashing tones here, one Kasi Lemmons rings truest is how endangered we’ve allowed our speech to become in an effort not to offend anyone. Talk to Me is a testament to a time when even the people who had a lot to lose didn’t back down from challenging the status quo.

Talk to Me, 2007, Taraji Henson, Don Cheadle

Where’d You Get All of This?
“Remembering Petey” By Kathryn Sinzinger. The Common Denominator, 8 March 2004

“City core subs for Washington D.C.” By Doug Foley. The Hamilton Spectator, 6 July 2006

“The Ready Return of a True Believer”
By Sharon Waxman. The New York Times, 8 July 2007

“Talk to Her”
By Amanda S. Miller. The Washington City Paper, 1 August 2007

Talk to Me Kasi Lemmons” By Emanuel Levy

“Kasi Lemmons Finds the Voice to Speak Out in Talk to Me
By Lily Percy. MovieMaker Magazine, 15 October 2007

Tags: Concert · Drunk scene

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Yojimbo_5 // Sep 22, 2009 at 11:34 am

    I felt “Talk to Me” came up a bit short-but I’m always dissatisfied with movies about radio. But, like you, I’d watch Don Cheadle and Taraji P. Henson in anything–together or separately.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Sep 24, 2009 at 12:09 am

    Jim: I enjoyed Talk to Me a little more than you did, but it’s good to see I’m not the only one who loves Taraji Henson. Even though she doesn’t do the kinds of movies that get fans jizzed up at Comic Con, Henson can bring so much more heart and soul to a character than what’s written on a page. I thought she really jumped off the screen in Baby Boy and Smokin Aces in particular. Thanks for commenting.

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