Kasi Lemmons’ engrossing double biography, “Talk to Me,” is a showcase for two fine actors who get a rare chance to strut their versatility.
Don Cheadle, far from the heroics of “Hotel Rwanda,” plays a pushy, alcoholic, unpredictable ex-convict, Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr., who became a talk-radio phenomenon in the late 1960s. On the day Martin Luther King died, he provided a much-needed voice of reason for the African-American community.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, best-known for his work in “Dirty Pretty Things,” plays Dewey Hughes, a Washington D.C. radio executive who recognizes Greene’s talent and risks his own job because he fears that WOL-AM will otherwise become identified with the Establishment.
His boss (Martin Sheen) isn’t so sure, and Hughes demonstrates his daring by locking him in his office while Greene’s broadcast plays live on the air. It’s a close call, but when the switchboard starts lighting up in response to Greene’s attempts to make it real, a new radio star is born.
The relationship between the proper Hughes and irrepressible Greene is the heart of “Talk to Me,” which makes neither of them look like a pushover. In perhaps the key episode, a pool game reveals how different they are, and how much they complement each other.
“I need you to say all the things that I’m afraid to say,” says Hughes.
Opposites attract, with a vengeance. Greene calls Hughes “another white boy with a tan,” and expresses his contempt for Sidney Poitier’s “Mr. Tibbs,” the straight-talking detective Poitier played in three movies. Hughes puts Greene in his place by demonstrating his pool expertise and proving that he can spout street talk with the best of them.
The competitive chemistry is undeniable, and it continues through the years, right up to the moment when Greene blows his big moment on Johnny Carson’s show—and Hughes punches him for giving up on what was really Hughes’ childhood dream.
Cheadle takes over the movie almost from the beginning, with a prison scene in which Greene talks a convict out of a confrontation with a warden who is ready to kill. Instantly demonstrating Greene’s gift of gab as well as his judgment and timing, Cheadle delivers a performance not quite like anything he’s done before.
He’s especially good at demonstrating Greene’s boldness in his early broadcasts, slyly insulting Berry Gordy on the air, then apologizing without really apologizing. He’s even looser in front of a live audience, unconstrained by his radio boss’ insistence that “we have to be respectable.”
But Greene wouldn’t have the opportunity to be Greene if Hughes hadn’t paved the way, and Eijofor matches Cheadle’s brilliance with a slow-burn performance that suggests that Hughes is the one who truly grows and changes. When they’re together on-screen, they seem able to get away with anything, even a dicey episode in which Greene shows up nearly naked at Hughes’ apartment.
Hughes’ date assumes that the two men are lovers, she splits in a hurry, and Cheadle and Eijofor turn the episode into the movie’s most outrageously comic episode. Putting them together was clearly an inspiration, and director Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) knows exactly what to do with the opportunity.