As a way of depicting an important slice of history, Talk to Me is successful. As a vehicle for Don Cheadle to amaze us once again with his utter transformation, it's excellent. As a work of storytelling, however, the movie falls short. Director Kasi Lemmons is fantastic at setting up artful shots and creating scenes full of tension. But these great pieces put together somehow don't add up to a satisfying, complete work.
Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene was a prisoner in the 1960s, acting as radio DJ for his fellow cell mates. When he was released from jail he went straight to D.C. radio station WOL-AM to claim what he thought was his rightful job as a radio host. Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the only black man holding a high position at the R&B station, initially resisted hiring Petey — he was an ex-con after all — which led Petey to stage demonstrations in front of the radio station, accusing Hughes of not supporting a fellow black man. After much hemming and hawing on the part of the station manager (Martin Sheen), Petey was brought on board and he became the voice of the people. In turn, the radio station became the peoples' radio station. That's just the beginning, though, so
From that point on in the movie, there are many scenes about Petey being "real" vs. Hughes being "white," plenty of arguments between Petey and his girlfriend Vernell (the electrifying Taraji P. Henson), and Petey getting drunk and doing silly things. Everything comes to a standstill, however, at the murder of Martin Luther King. For a brief time, Petey Greene became a sort of coarse beacon of peace and hope while the streets of DC were filled with riots and fires. This is one of the most intriguing moments of the film, not least because of Don Cheadle's apparent internalization of this experience.
The rest of the movie is a jumble of your normal rise-to-fame-fall-from-grace stuff, with a lot of crises arising between Hughes and Petey. Cheadle is flawless in this movie, though Ejiofor (who I love infinitely more now) puts forth an astounding performance as the upright, responsible working man making it in a white man's environment while trying not to deny his childhood spent in the projects. Not to mention he's absolutely gorgeous. Looking dapper in his suits, he employs a heavy-lidded sexiness and gentlemanly strength. Though, admittedly, at times it seems that Ejiofor's stage training comes through — his pronunciation so precise, his vocal technique so polished.
Director Lemmons does her very best to deliver a tense, high-stakes atmosphere, all set to the soulful tunes of the 1960s and 1970s. Where the movie fails most is in the script. Sometimes the dialogue is spot-on, at other times it's laughably trite. For every heavy-handed moment, though, there's Don Cheadle undercutting the cliches with his impeccable comedic timing. If there's no Oscar nomination in Cheadle's future on account of this movie, I will be shocked.