What DJ Adrian Cronauer brought to the airwaves of Saigon, Ralph ‘Petey’ Greene brought to the wirelesses of ’60s Washington. He even had his own rabble-rousing sign-on, an abrasive “Wake up, goddammit!” to rival Cronauer’s “Good morning Vietnam”. Greene’s a “shit-talking, pimp-walking, good-loving” motormouth who spiced up WOL-AM’s stuffy programming with his plain-speaking street smarts and this fictionalised depiction of a real-life institution gives Don Cheadle, if not the role of a lifetime, then certainly of the decade.
Eve’s Bayou helmer Kasi Lemmons, however, has more on her mind than a dewy-eyed period biopic. In contrasting Petey with strait-laced, social-climbing supervisor Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), she offers something more – a thoughtful study of the divergent paths a black guy could follow at this pivotal moment in Afro- American history. Should one keep it real like Petey, thumbing a nose at the white establishment from behind the ghetto’s walls? Or should one seek to prosper from inside the system like Dewey, beating ‘The Man’ at his own game even if it does mean being labelled a “sell-out, Mr Tibbs, white boy with a tan” by his own people?
In dividing the focus so equally between Cheadle’s charismatic jailbird (“My guest tonight is a pimp I wouldn’t trust to wash my car. But you all done elected him city official!”) and Ejiofor’s softly-spoken pragmatist, co-scripters Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa might have done both a disservice. Thankfully they manage to create both an affectionate homage to a singular talent and a vital social document, filled with as much cultural comment as sassy, risqué humour. With the exception of Martin Sheen’s station director, a staid blow-hard too readily transformed into a Petey Greene cheerleader, there’s little sense of the forces of oppression trying to stop Cheadle telling it how it is. In one key scene, however – Petey using his on-air influence to calm a Washington inflamed by Martin Luther King’s assassination – Talk To Me transforms hard-hitting radio into vibrant, entertaining cinema, thanks in part to some ass-kicking tunes and the loudest fashions this side of Malcolm X.