After his sojourns in Rwanda and Darfur, Don Cheadle must have been looking around for a movie that didn't also serve as a humanitarian mission. And he's found one in Talk to Me, Kasi Lemmons' jive-talkin' biopic of Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, the flamboyant ex-con whose morning radio show on KWOL put the funk in Washington D.C.'s trunk back in the late '60s and early '70s. Keeping it real long before keeping it real became a sketch premise on The Chappelle Show, Greene said all the things Richard Pryor was about to say, and we can only imagine what Talk to Me would have been like if the young, hungry Pryor had gotten hold of the role. But Cheadle gives it his best, nudging his rather reserved demeanor past the boundaries of taste and decorum. "Wake up, goddammit!" he shouts into the mike, kicking off another show.
And wake up they did, a cultural renaissance that endowed Black Power with both substance and style. Talk to Me allows us to witness this seismic shift, from its earliest rumblings to its climactic convulsions, and it tries to do justice to both the substance and the style. Stylistically, it's a hoot, the period having been a decade-long costume party the likes of which hasn't been seen since. Taraji P. Henson, who plays Greene's girlfriend, Vernell, has squeezed herself into miniskirts so tight only Foxy Brown could find her way back out. And the lapels of Cheadle's shirts are so wide they need a landing clearance before being thrown in the dirty-clothes hamper. Lemmons hasn't tried to meticulously re-create the period, but the mack-daddy threads bring out something new in her star. For perhaps the first time on film, Cheadle preens.
He's been paired with Chiwetel Ejiofor in a buddy-movie arrangement that's supposed to remind us of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Ejiofor plays Dewey Hughes, the program director who nurtured Greene's talent, and he might as well be carrying a box of Oreos around with him, so closely does he resemble what Greene calls "another white boy with a tan." But looks can be deceiving, and so can Ejiofor's performance. "You say the things I'm afraid to say, and I do the things you're afraid to do," Hughes says to Greene, a line that should have remained unsaid. But it does sum up a symbiotic relationship that took both men to the top of the show-biz heap, a guest shot on The Tonight Show, where Greene kept it real by alienating both the audience and the power-broker behind the desk. Luckily, Talk to Me sees this not as the end of the world but the beginning of a new one.
Mark Your Calendar: Beginning this weekend with Angel-A, a modest-budget French comedy from the director of La Femme Nikita, Sundance Cinemas will devote one of its six auditoriums to movies that are even a little more off the beaten path. Culled from various film festivals, the lineup for the first eight-week Screening Room Calendar, which also includes >Chalk, Lady Chatterley and Guy Maddin's >Brand Upon the Brain, can be viewed at >www.sundancecinemas.com.