Liv­ing big in tur­bu­lent times

Evan Wil­liams

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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