Living big in turbulent times
THERE’S a nice moment in Talk to Me, Kasi Lemmons’s film about a black 1960s activist and radio discjockey called Petey Greene, when a woman opens the door of her apartment in Washington, DC, to greet Greene with a loving embrace. Outside, the streets are littered with rioters and blazing cars, the suburbs alive with the crackle of gunfire. The woman looks meltingly into Greene’s face and reaches her arm around his back to draw him closer. Then we notice the gun in her hand.
It’s a light enough touch, but strangely shocking, and catches beautifully what we suppose was the mood of the time. In 1968, in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination, riots raged for weeks in the streets of Washington, and women opening their doors in the middle of the night probably had no way of knowing whether their caller was a friend, a lover or some crazy protester.
At the height of the violence, Greene made a celebrated speech to a mob of restive Washington demonstrators and helped calm them down. Listeners knew him for his radio show, but as a public orator he was in much the same class as King, and no less adored by his followers.
Lemmons’s absorbing film is something less than a standard biopic and something more than an affectionate tribute to one of the barely remembered personalities of American showbusiness. Ralph Waldo Petey Greene Jr was raised in Depression- era poverty by his maternal grandmother and spent much of his early life in reform schools. At 17 he served in Korea as an army volunteer before returning to a life of drugs and street crime. Jailed in 1960 for armed robbery, he developed his skills as a radio DJ in Lorton Prison in Virginia, playing records for the inmates on the prison PA. A prison buddy introduced him to Dewey Hughes, program manager at a Washington radio station, who gave Greene his first job behind the mike.
Don Cheadle plays him with a shrewd blend of charm, bluster and other- worldliness. We sense the anxiety and reticence behind the confident exterior, and Cheadle gives the film its passion and momentum, as well as its humour.
There are touches of fine slapstick mayhem, including the scene in which Greene botches his first on- air appearance by succumbing to nerves and insulting the station’s owners. Many a crisis is patched up by E. G. Sonderling, Martin Sheen’s harassed station manager ( and the only white member of the cast), who more than once threatens Greene with the sack before recognising his charismatic gifts.
As a celebration of the strange, demotic power of radio — the most politically potent of mass media — Talk to Me has rarely been bettered. It has none of the sugary nostalgia of Woody Allen’s Radio Days or the frenetic energy of Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam . Instead it offers a fine recreation of an era and a candid, though not uncritical, portrait of an extraordinary personality.
It’s Cheadle’s film, and I can’t recall a scene in which he doesn’t appear. He’s well supported by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Dewey Hughes and a spirited, delightfully belligerent Taraji P. Henson as Vernell Watson, the lady in Greene’s life.
The story, though it lacks shape towards the end, is neatly tied to the unfolding events of the day, signified by clips of LBJ, Vietnam, riots and demos. Signified, incidentally, is not a word that Greene would have used. His best- remembered utterance include the words: ‘‘ I don’t want no laughin’, I don’t want no cryin’, and most of all, no signifyin’.’’ We hear the line more than once, and I’m not sure what signifyin’ means in that context. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.
* * * WE Own the Night, written and directed by James Gray, is a taut, resonant police thriller set in New York in the ’ 80s. According to the ads, it’s based on an ‘‘ incredible true story’’, incredibility, in my view, making a more convincing claim than truth.
Gray has acknowledged a debt to Hollywood crime classics of the past, including Chinatown , The Godfather and The French Connection , and I wish I could say his film was in the same league.
Yes, it touches on similar issues of class and family, and the Russian ethnic background makes a nice change from the mafia. Robert Duvall, one of the stars of The Godfather , turns up in Gray’s film on the other side of the law playing Bert Grusinski, New York’s deputy police chief who is determined to smash the city’s burgeoning drug trade and restore order to the streets.
In 1988, New York was notorious for squalor and lawlessness, the crack epidemic was at its height and homicide rates were soaring. Gray acknowledges all this with a couple of lines of dialogue without ever really bringing home to us how desperate things were.
It’s this background of social breakdown that should be driving the film and giving point to the central relationship: Grusinski’s disappointment with his elder son Bobby ( Joaquin Phoenix), a coke- snorting wastrel who makes no secret of his contempt for the police, especially his good- cop brother, Joe ( Mark Wahlberg).
Meanwhile, his family business, a social club for Russian immigrants, operates as a front for drug- runners, and when papa Grusinksi and brother Joe decide to raid the place, family relationships take a tragic turn.
James Gray ( The Yards , Little Odessa ) delivers the standard ingredients of the Hollywood cop thriller: a splendid car chase, a brutal assassination or two, the unmasking of the real Mr Big in the final scene. He has a keen eye for the sleaze of routine police work. However, the characters lack depth and nuance. This is a more than competent thriller with much pleasing exotic detail. But if Gray intended us to be moved and shaken by it all, I’m afraid he fails us.
Charismatic: Don Cheadle dominates the scenes in Talk to Me as legendary 1960s DJ Petey Greene