“Wake up, God damn it!” is how TALK TO ME begins and that’s exactly what is going to happen to its lead characters, the people in their orbit, and the entire city of Washington D.C. The story may be formulaic, albeit based on actual events, but stars Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor take charge of screen so decisively that any shortcomings in the script are strictly secondary to their dynamic performances.
The actual events begin in 1966 and follow the unlikely pairing of ex-con DJ Petey Green (Cheadle, who also co-produced) and Dewey Hughes (Ejiofor), the only person of color in management at WOL, a Washington, DC R&B station that is losing its black audience to a hipper rival. Though the two have more in common than not, the differences make for a rocky start to their relationship. Director Kasi Lemmons (EVE’S BAYOU) keeps tightly focused on the bond these two men develop as they reluctantly, and to their surprise, learn to admire everything that they thought was wrong with the other’s way of dealing with the world. Both swagger, both have moxie, and both are out to remake the world at large to their liking. As the script spells out, perhaps a bit too blatantly, sometimes it takes two men with a dream to stir things up. One with the business savvy, the other with the street smarts, but both knowing how to work the system, albeit from different angles.
Their first meeting doesn’t bode well. Dewey is visiting his brother at the prison where Petey is also doing time. When Petey all but accosts Dewey by way of asking for an on-air job when he’s released, Dewey dismisses him as a miscreant, a word that Petey hasn’t heard before, but takes up with relish during his next broadcast. And when he is released, he barges into WOL like a typhoon, flashy girlfriend Vernell (Taraji P. Henson in a stunning turn, literally and figuratively) in tow. No one realizes it yet, but he is the future and it takes Hughes, putting aside the unpolished exterior, to finally get it. Using persuasion and a little subterfuge, he gets Petey on the air.
There are the standard misgivings all around about Petey jumping from spinning records and philosophy at the prison where he’s incarcerated, to WOL. There’s the white owner of the station (Martin Sheen) who can’t see the times changing in front of his eye, Hughes, who eventually sees Petey as the new direction in broadcasting, but a loose cannon, and even Petey has a moment of paralyzing doubt before walking into WOL to demand a job. But once he hits the airwaves, and starts speaking the truth as he sees it to a community that hasn’t heard their point of view on the airwaves before, the phone lines light up and whatever doubts anyone had give way to the lure of higher ratings.
The relationship stays if not rocky, at least dicey. Petey showing up stark naked on Dewey’s sedate doorstep after being tossed out by Vernell for cheating. Dewey telling Petey, who had shown up late for a live appearance, that he can’t believe he showed up drunk. Petey replying that he can’t believe he showed up at all. That last exchange summing up the way the relationship will crack, as Dewey’s Johnny Carson-inspired dreams of the big time for Petey don’t quite click with what Petey wants out of life.
Cheadle is, as always, astonishing with the immediacy and impact with which he charges the screen. Channeling Petey’s bombast, his native genius, and his biting irreverence, he’s an impatient cocksure rebel with a cause and more than one Achilles Heel. Ejiofor is smooth as silk, subtle where Cheadle is kinetic, embracing Dewey’s patient approach, but giving him the same burning passion that sometimes blindsides him. They nail the humor and the tragedy of the story with the same effortless precision that they nail the courage each man had in challenging the status quo.
The film reflects the changing times of the 60s and 70s with more than just the sometimes startling changes in hair-dos and FCC standards, the latter something Petey tested every moment he was on the air. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., is, of course, part of the story, but in one of the things the script gets so very right, the most wrenching moments are the unexpected ones. Sheen’s character, standing out of the way as Petey goes on the air for hours to keep the city calm, discovered weeping quietly at the end of the broadcast as he shakes Petey’s hand and, voice breaking, thanks him. Later, when Petey walks through the now-quiet ruins of the city after the riots have subsided and seeing a truck full of armed soldiers drive by. Like the performances, it helps redeem the failings, such as Dewey discovering Petey’s influence on his listeners by overhearing a conversation in a bar.
TALK TO ME does a fine job of recreating the turmoil of the 60s, gliding through those years with a crisp efficiency that gets the zeitgeist, both heady and edgy, but it does an even better job of depicting the male-bonding process in a way that doesn’t rely on glib clichés. It’s a tribute to the power of friendship, even when it goes wrong. It, like Petey, has a few rough spots, but the unabashed heart that is the motivating force at work here is as irresistible as Petey’s unvarnished charm.