Monday, July 9, 2007

Don Cheadle plays a D.C. hero

Summary: The late Petey Greene grew up on the mean streets of D.C. -- and we're not talking about the comic books. A self-made DJ who worked at Washington's legendary WOL during the 1960s, Greene became a hero known for speaking his mind and making hot-link connections with an avid and loyal audience.

Don Cheadle stars in "Talk to Me," a new bio-pic about Greene, a former convict who talked his talk on the radio, gaining special credibility with a bravura performance on the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. "Talk to Me," which opens later this month, faces big-time summer competition from movies such as the latest "Harry Potter," but the movie tells a peculiarly American story that deserves some play.

And, no, Greene didn't go to Hogwarts: He got his education in prison.

Cheadle stars with Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the initially reluctant radio exec who hires Petey and later becomes his manager. Cheadle and Ejiofor have some terrific scenes together, including a crackerjack bit in a pool hall when Ejiofor's college-educated exec squares off against a streetwise Greene.

Director Kasi Lemmons ("Eve's Bayou") hasn't made the best bio-pic ever, but Cheadle rules the picture as a man with mutton chops, a beach ball-sized Afro and a carefully selected period wardrobe that quotes the era of big collars, splashy colors and bell bottoms with almaring accuracy.

And if you don't know Ejiofor's work ("Dirty Pretty Things"), you should.

Lemmons deserves credit not only for telling Greene's story, but also for trying to examine two apparently different kinds of men, a proud denizen of the streets and an upwardly mobile guy who's trying to escape the confinements of his past.

This means that "Talk to Me" not only proves entertaining, but also qualifies as a rarely seen, if somewhat schematic, study of black manhood. Let's hope that "Talk to Me" isn't the last word on the subject, but the beginning of big-screen conversation that's long overdue.

Greene's rap was strong, but also impolite: That means the movie is rated R for language, alcohol consumption and brief nudity, and be advised, he was one guy who understood that the sweet smell of success easily could turn sour.

Want a look at the real guy, click here for Greene's classic, improbable and unapologetic rant on how to eat watermelon, a neat trick in which Greene manages to reject a stereotype by exploiting it to its fullest.

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