In 1965, WOL radio program director Dewey Hughes is visiting his incarcerated brother when he's buttonholed by an outspoken inmate known as Petey Greene. Petey wants a job. Dewey makes it clear that, in spite of the convict's success with a free-form prison radio show, his station doesn't hire "miscreants."
Once the deejay convict connives his way back out on the street, however, he uses his motormouth skills and a little public arm-twisting to convince Dewey to give him a shot at his dream of "being real" on the Washington, D.C., airwaves. The experiment gets off to a rocky start, but becomes an eventual success. And the two become unexpected friends.
Petey's tell-it-like-it-is social commentary is shockingly new in the '60s and reinvigorates WOL's dwindling appeal to the local black community which seems to have become more interested in talk about the Civil Rights movement than in hearing just another Capitols tune. Of course, it also gains him a lot of heat from the FCC.
Dewey and Petey are polar opposites, but become committed friends. "I need you to say the things I'm afraid to say," Dewey tells him more than once. "You need me to do the things you can't do." (The particulars of what they say and do don't always fall into "positive" categories, but the sentiment sets just about right.) After the two have a falling out, Petey voices his love for his friend and brings them back together. Dewey learns from this forgiving encounter and reconnects with his estranged brother.
Petey's a hothead and loudmouth, but when Martin Luther King Jr.'s death triggers rioting, Petey's is the only voice that can calm the public anger. He and Dewey intervene physically to prevent a white businessman from getting killed by a handful of angry rioters. Then they rush back to the radio station where Petey goes on the air to talk the city down from the ledge. He identifies with the public anger but encourages people to go home and not burn down their city. Urging them to join him for a free James Brown concert the following night, he says, "Bring your heartache. Bring your anger. We gonna work it out together." Visibly heartsick over what has happened, the station's white owner tearfully thanks Petey for his work.
Petey's live-in girlfriend, Vernell, stands by him through his many difficulties (including time in prison and even flagrant sexual fouls), but refuses to support his drinking and leaves him a note that says, "Don't call till you've been sober six months." She's also his biggest fan and encourages him when he's down and out by telling him she's positive he can make something out of himself.
When Dewey persistently shoves Petey toward loftier and loftier platforms, he (and we) slowly get the point that fame for fame's sake isn't what life's all about. It's much better to stick with what you love to do, the script preaches, than to reach for the golden ring just because it's there.
A number of women wear revealing outfits, including hot pants, miniskirts and form-fitting pantsuits. But it's Vernell's wardrobe (or lack thereof) that most often catches the attention of the camera. She wears a variety of skintight, skimpy, cleavage- and midriff-baring outfits.
When we first meet Vernell, she has shown up at the prison for a conjugal visit with Petey, and she's being ogled by the prisoners and guards. She takes off her brassiere (pulling it from the top of her dress) to prove that she doesn't wear padding. At the radio station, after she has had a fight with the unfaithful Petey, she taunts him with the implication that she has given oral sex to another deejay as retaliation. (And we see that jock pulling up his fly.)
Petey's seen naked in bed with several different women—in one instance, two at once. (In the frame are flashes of bare torsos and sexual movements.) He's kicked out into the hallway after one encounter and we see him fully naked from the rear. Dressed only in underwear, he and Vernell dance together.
Petey talks to Dewey about masturbating. And he asks a receptionist if she has ever experienced oral sex. He's proud of the fact that he counts "pimps," "whores" and "shake dancers" among his best friends. A prison inmate calls out disparaging comments about the warden's genitalia, grabbing at himself for emphasis. A whole host of other crude comments and jokes, including ones about sex in prison, eat ups screen time.
Violent crowds of rioters run the streets of Washington, smashing windows and throwing Molotov cocktails into buildings and overturned cars. Black men chase down a white shop owner and begin to beat him. White police officers club black rioters.
Catching Petey in the act of cheating on her, Vernell breaks a bottle over his back and holds the jagged remains to his throat. Petey and another deejay fall into a fistfight after Vernell gives the other man her sexual attentions. Petey and Dewey wrestle and fight.
Crude or Profane Language
The tally tops 200. F- and s-words account for nearly half of that total. (And the closing credits provide no relief since they're underscored by a song fueled by the obscenity "m-----f---er.") Other foul words include "h---," "a--," "b--ch" and "d--n." There are 20 or more vulgar references to sexual organs. The epithet "n-gger" and the blasphemy "g--d--n" are uttered repeatedly. Jesus' name is abused once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Petey drinks to the point of falling down and throwing up. He performs drunk. He fights drunk. He plays drunk. After Vernell kicks him out of their apartment, Petey, who's naked, wanders over to Dewey's place and consumes several bottles of booze.
Dewey downs a few brews, too. He and the radio station owner toast success with glasses of champagne. And others drink at a pool hall and a bar.
Most of the characters smoke. And the camera makes a big deal out of Petey's habit of always having a cigarette in his mouth. Close-up shots concentrate on the "pop" of his lips as he inhales and the hiss of the cigarette's embers. Throat cancer appears to be the eventual cause of his death, though we only hear him let loose with one portentous rasping cough.
Talk to Me's first words are, "Wake up g--d--mit!" And they become the rough-edged catchphrase of the movie's real-life shock-jock hero. Actor Don Cheadle does an amazing job of remaking this crass, gruff, macho, sometimes irritating and often inebriated man into a believably flawed individual. Scratch through the tough exterior, and you can see he cares about those around him. And we come to care about him, too. Cheadle's depiction of Petey's effort to calm the Washington, D.C., riots is stirring. And he helps make the friendship between Petey and Dewey one of the most involving and emotionally intimate parts of the movie.
The film's director, Kasi Lemmons, uses the "Wake up ...!" clarion call (which is repeated several times for emphasis as the story unfolds) as a reminder that the social tensions of which Petey Greene speaks are still very real for some people today. And although the climb-the-ladder-to-fame-then-tumble-into-oblivion script is fairly predictable and mundane (especially on its downward slope), Lemmons does a good job of helping us feel the racial heat of the era and leaves us wondering about our country's current temperature.
Unfortunately, that profane outburst is also the precursor of something less profound: a tidal wave of obscenity that surges over the audience and sweeps it along in increasingly polluted floodwaters. We're sent splashing about in a world that, in fact, feels almost racist in its own depiction—a one-dimensional, foul-mouthed, inner city singly focused on rage and on hatred toward anyone and anything outside its community. At one point, Dewey complains to Petey that blacks look down on other blacks who "speak proper English and wear something other than a clown suit." But that's the attitude Talk to Me tends to perpetuate. A drunken, profane lover of crime (Petey) is held up as the hero of the people who "keeps it real," while a temperate, businesslike, lover of suits (Dewey) is "in bed with the man" and little more than a "white man with a tan."
The emotion connects. But the particulars leave us wanting. Quoting Martin Luther King, Petey declares, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." And by that measure, Petey stands tall as he fights to lend strength to his friends and his neighbors during their weakest hours.
But there's more to movies than their highlights. Talk to Me's noble intentions to lionize a little-known (at least nationally) figure of the late '60s Civil Rights movement are inundated by a deluge of slick stereotypes, historical oversimplifications ... and fierce f-words that are somehow counted on to do all the heavy lifting.