'Petey' Greene: Pioneering Shock Jock, D.C. Icon
The film Talk to Me is based on the life of Washington, D.C., radio announcer Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene Jr. The smart-talking ex-convict is now regarded as one of the first shock jocks.
But Greene was much more than an entertainer: He was also a social activist who offered cutting commentary on race, poverty, power and politics — and whose voice calmed angry and despairing residents of the nation's capital after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Kasi Lemmons directed Talk to Me, which stars Don Cheadle as the outspoken Greene, who spent more than a decade on air at WOL-AM. Chiwetel Ejiofor co-stars as Dewey Hughes, the station's straight-laced program director, who is Greene's business partner and, ultimately, friend.
Cheadle and Lemmons knew little — or nothing, in the case of Cheadle — about Greene's story before they became involved in the film.
But Lemmons tells Michele Norris that once she started learning about his triumphs and his troubles, capturing his outsize persona became just one part of what she wanted to do with the movie.
"I saw it as a friendship film. I thought of Butch Cassidy and Sundance; I thought of Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier [in Uptown Saturday Night]," Lemmons says.
Cheadle praises Greene's ability to question conventional wisdom — and the outrageous fashion of Greene's era.
A pivotal moment in the movie comes as Greene and Hughes are arguing, when the station owner, played by Martin Sheen, arrives with the news of King's assassination. Greene goes on air to announce the death.
"As a director, you love to do something like that — to turn from comedy to tragedy-- and it's also like life. That's the way life happens ... suddenly, something can make five seconds before irrelevant," Lemmons says. "All of a sudden, you're in the here and now of what just happened, the news that you've just gotten. So I wanted it to feel like that."
Rather than rehearsing, Lemmons had the cast talk about the event — and how they wanted it to feel. The director shared a story about hearing her mother scream.
"And she kept screaming, and as a little child, what that felt like, and that I thought she said, 'The king is dead.' And I was wondering, 'What king? Do we have a king?'" she says. "I didn't really relate to who he was, but the sound that my mother made — that I'd never heard before or since — it's like the world must be ending if my mother's screaming, and how bone-chilling it was."
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