Sunday, February 10, 2008

Black History Month: TALK TO ME on DVD

I was first was impressed by Don Cheadle playing a lawyer on the CBS-TV drama PICKET FENCES. He was featured in BOOGIE NIGHTS and his career got another big boost playing Sammy Davis, Jr. in THE RAT PACK cable movie. Artistic triumph came in HOTEL RWANDA and he hit multiplex mega-consciousness in the OCEAN’S 11 series.

Personal recollections of other great Cheadle moments include two television appearances: a very funny MADtv sketch where he plays a couples therapist and a crazy duet with Adam Sandler when Sandler guest hosted for an ailing David Letterman.

One Cheadle performance that deserved to be seen by a wider audience in 2007 (now out on DVD) is TALK TO ME, a biopic about Petey Greene, an AM-radio star in Washington, D.C. who for a moment in history transcended show business and calmed a racially explosive capital.

Petey Greene is an ex-con who got his start on a microphone spinning his grandmother’s 45s over the prison P.A. He talks his way into a deejay job at a failing AM station in the early ‘60s. The program director, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is the brother of one of his fellow convicts. They first meet in prison and Dewey says look me up when you get out, which no one thinks will be soon. Greene gets out unexpectedly early and shows up looking for a job.

Chiwetel Ejiofor steals this movie deftly playing the unexpected twists that his character takes. Dewey starts out as his boss and becomes mentor, friend, and agent. This is as much the Dewey Hughes story as it is Petey Greene’s. For a film with an African-American theme you’ll be surprised to find that an underlying theme is the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson as we see Dewey watching Johnny. Carson is his idol, not only professionally but personally.

The central event of the movie is the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dewey’s presence on the air that night and a free public concert the next day by James Brown, with Dewey as emcee, is credited with helping to bring order to the besieged city.

Martin Sheen, as the station owner, has a great scene after Dewey’s radio show ends that you’ll have to see on the DVD extras. He’s interpreting the horrible events at the end of that long day and for some reason we only see the beginning and end of a moving monologue about meeting MLK back in the day. Perhaps the director felt it took away from the impact of the Dewey’s scene.

Cheadle plays Petey as a human being with flaws and there’s no attempt to excuse his drinking, infidelity, or letting people down. There’s no Rocky-type ending as his career peaks on television in Washington. He doesn’t want what his agent wants: national fame. He speaks the truth about corrupt politicians, sexual mores, and the bad things that people in his own community did, except that this was the first time anyone ever heard it on the radio. In one of the DVD extras, a reflective Cedric the Entertainer (deejay “Nighthawk” Bob Terry) ruminates on the state of expression today and notes that people were more free to speak back in the 1970s. Sad but true and maybe TALK TO ME will remind people of their freedom to speak and act.

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