Cruising along cinema’s chitlin’ circuit
Talk to Me
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
“Every stereotype has truth,” says Don Cheadle as Petey Greene. That fallacy ruins Talk to Me, the new film about Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, the radio disc jockey who was popular among Washington D.C.’s black listeners in the 1960s. Taking a nostalgic view of that period and its styles, director Kasi Lemmons attempts to re-animate stereotypes; she misreads the music, clothes, afros and attitude as the essence of Petey, his woman Vernell (Taraji P. Henson) and Dewey (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the radio exec who put him on the air.
Lemmons’ approach in Talk to Me strikingly contrasts Radio Golf, August Wilson’s recently closed Broadway play, the final installment of his 10-part opus about black American life in the 20th century. While using each decade as a setting, Wilson subverted racial stereotypes by consistently concentrating on his characters’ spiritual and social struggle—not style. Talk to Me relies on stereotypes as an easy way of involving the audience, making Petey’s self-destructive, mack-daddy behavior seem familiar. But when Talk to Me shows how Petey eventually botched his own career arc, he becomes an enigma rather than a man whose difficulties and stress have been made clear, or deeply felt, as with Wilson’s vividly imagined characters.
Nostalgia has taken the place of research and insight in faux black American histories like Talk to Me, Dreamgirls, Ray and Ali—the new cinematic chitlin’ circuit. Our pop past, as represented by fashion and music and television, provides a superficial link to history. Lemmons and screenwriters Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa go no deeper than Petey Greene’s surface (which unfortunately resembles Tim Meadows in Ladies Man). No wonder Wilson was reluctant to sell Hollywood rights to his plays; he correctly feared how even black filmmakers tended to turn life into clichés. Talk to Me begins in a prison where Dewey visits his inmate brother (Mike Epps) and first encounters Petey jiving on the p.a. system. Petey asks for a job when he’s released and Dewey dismisses him as a “miscreant.” Far from examining masculine competitiveness—as in Walter Hill’s great prison/life drama Undisputed—this is just instant class conflict: the suit vs. the pimp suit.
Dewey and Petey—the well-behaved assimilationist and the wild, unembarrassed stereotype—circle round the issue of black legitimacy; it’s the guilty secret of Lemmons’ previous films. Mustachioed Petey and rump-shaking Vernell bust into Dewey’s office buckin’ and stylin’ and slinging Ebonics the way actors would do in blaxploitation films a full decade later. Dewey recognizes Petey’s natural gift and hires him. Their teamwork leads to success and fame that get explained in superficial terms: “I need you to say the things I’m afraid to say. You need me to do the things you’re afraid to do.” This fatuous examination of careerism is hung-up on opposing styles of behavior without understanding that Dewey and Petey share complementary goals yet hold different values. That’s Wilson’s key insight about the male protagonists of Radio Golf, but Talk to Me confuses the problem when success-drunk Petey complains, “I never asked for this shit!” (The film doesn’t acknowledge that one has to work on his patter the way the other has to work on spread sheets.) Lemmons ignores Petey’s satisfaction with money and celebrity for fear of losing her specious house negro/field negro dichotomy.
Cheadle and Ejiofor leap at the men’s stereotypical differences. From Dewey’s “The world’s been waiting for a nigger like you” to Petey’s “Love you like a brother,” the relationship is as fake as the afro toupees, ’70s mutton-chops and chest medallions. Cheadle lacks a star DJ’s insinuating voice so he emphasizes Petey’s impudent swagger, yet he’s never trenchantly persuasive like the itinerant worker in Radio Golf who describes his swelling hope as, “I felt like I had my dick in my hand.” Wilson’s line distilled machismo to a psychological basis. It dissolves stereotypes of black male bravado whereas “Every stereotype has truth” keeps us ignorant.
After the disgrace of Samuel L. Jackson imitating a jack-o-lantern in The Caveman’s Valentine and the mawkish sisterhood of Eve’s Bayou, it’s fair to say that Kasi Lemmons’ view of black folks has always been reductive. Only her weak compositions are worse, such as reducing the D.C. riots after MLK’s assassination to a blizzard of paper in the streets. All this suggests that Lemmons doesn’t know enough about African-American experience to fill a chitlin’.
Preach it brother Armond, I am feeling you. Although sadly, I still might check out this flick.
I will let you all know what I think after I see it.