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Talk to Me

Urban Biopic Scores

Kasi Lemmons’ (Eve's Bayou) latest film, Talk to Me explores, in microcosm, the African American struggle embodied in the Civil Rights Movement. Through Ralph "Petey" Greene, an ex-con-turned-radio personality who made a name for himself during the Civil Rights Movement in Washington, D.C., Talk to Me also explores the conflict between assimilation and "keeping it real", that is, remaining true to your ethnic roots and cultural identity. While Talk to Me suffers from the usual problems associated with the biopic genre, it benefits from a realistically delineated central relationship and uniformly superb performances from a multi-talented cast.

Talk to Me opens in Washington, D.C. in 1966 as the war in Vietnam escalates and the Civil Rights Movement galvanizes African-Americans and their supporters. Greene (Don Cheadle), a convict serving a "dime," a ten-year sentence for several felonies, wiles away his sentence playing DJ to the other prisoners. Respected by the other cons, Petey manages to convince a con from jumping from a nearby prison roof. As a reward, the warden helps Petey get an early release. Petey and his brash, outspoken girlfriend, Vernell (Taraji P. Henson) look up Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the program director of a Washington, D.C.-based radio station, W-LOL, hoping for a DJ gig. Petey's lone connection to Hughes is Hughes' incarcerated brother, Milo (Mike Epps).

Hughes and the station owner, E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen), are seriously reluctant to give the brash-talking, unpolished Petey a chance with their core audience that listens to the mellow sounds of Sunny Jim (Vondie Curtis-Hall) by day and the baritoned Nighthawk (Cedric the Entertainer) by night. But a chance is exactly what Petey finally gets. Petey quickly develops a unique style, mixing DJ-style intros and outros with biting social commentary about the plight of poor, disenfranchised African Americans. Petey's fame and ego quickly grow, and with Dewey as his manager, Petey nets his own television program and a career as a stand-up comedian.

Unfortunately, self-absorption, performance anxiety, womanizing, and alcoholism temper Petey’s progressive voice, and Dewey's more polished, restrained behavior comes at a price – his "realness" as a member of the African-American community. Due his college education, body language, and careful enunciation, Dewey is attacked for betraying his ethnic and cultural roots.

Without this conflicted, complex relationship between Greene and Hughes and the larger struggle they embody within the Civil Rights Movement (i.e. assimilation versus segregation), Talk to Me would be just another by-the-numbers biopic. It definitely is, of course, even if these clichés are dressed up in R&B, funk, and soul music (not to mention period perfect clothes and hairstyles). Credit for being better than the average biopic is also due to Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performances. Both actors give superlative, award-worthy performances. That may not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with their previous work, but it’s certainly welcome every moment they’re on screen.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars