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Talk to Me: Shock Jockery

Gooooood mooorrrnnniiinnng Washington, D.C.! (Photo by Stphane Fontaine)

I’d hoped to send only good thoughts the way of Kasi Lemmons’ biopic of Washington disc jockey Ralph Waldo (“Petey”) Greene Jr., if only because it tries to snatch shock-jockery back from the right and reclaim it for the populist black left. The visual daring that showed off Lemmons’ first feature, Eve’s Bayou, translates here into a rousing, kinetic mounting of the downtown ’60s D.C. scene that Greene helped create. And Talk to Me has going for it Don Cheadle as the ex-con whose radical taste in music and potty-mouthed patter, delivered in his trademark wheezy rasp, galvanized a fuddy-duddy, white-owned (Martin Sheen, in a performance he may prefer to forget) blues station into a sassy voice for the dispossessed “other Washington.” A vision in Afro and superflashy threads, Cheadle careens between cunning, abject and noble, trying to breathe shades of meaning — after all, Greene laid the groundwork for Howard Stern as well as for rap — into a man who shone like the sun when spinning the turntable for fellow prisoners, but fell to pieces opposite Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Neither Lemmons nor screenwriters Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa, however, have much of a feel for character, let alone story. Talk to Me jams the stormy relationship between Greene and his toe-the-line station manager Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) into a predictable arc of mutual transformation, with strenuous sociopolitical context (LBJ, MLK) shoehorned in to flag the momentous times for which Greene became a people’s commentator. The movie always teeters on the verge of something deeper, and Cheadle’s rendering of Greene’s stubborn refusal to be domesticated is funny, exhilarating and then quietly tragic. But Lemmons keeps pulling back into jive-talking shtick, and for much of the time — especially in scenes between Cheadle and his exuberant but long-suffering girlfriend (Hustle & Flow’s Taraji P. Henson) — I felt as though someone had trapped me in a time-warped episode of The Jeffersons.

—Ella Taylor