Tuesday, July 17, 2007

'Talk to Me': A Political Movie that Lacks Politics

Don Cheadle's new film, Talk to Me, about Petey Greene forgets Greene's most important accomplishment: He was a community activist who railed against poverty and racism.

There are two straight-to-the-gut scenes in Talk To Me , the new biopic in which Don Cheadle slam-dunks his portrayal of Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, the ex-con, street-sassy, Afro'ed-out deejay who brought black power to the radio in Washington, DC, in the 1960s.

The first occurs the night Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated. Greene, who had fast-talked himself into an on-air job at WOL-AM, goes into the studio to try to calm down the city, which is in flames, as blacks are rioting and destroying their own neighborhoods. "I don't know if I'm more sad or angry," Greene tells his audience. And Greene is walking a line. He pleads with his listeners to resist the urge to strike: "That's your city ... That's not what Dr. King would've wanted." Then he says, "The truth is, if they can do it to him, don't think for a minute they can't cut you down like a dog." But he counsels, "Put away your anger."

When he walks out of the studio, the other African-American employees embrace him. They all looked stunned and exhausted. Then they spot in the corridor the white station owner (played by Martin Sheen) sobbing. Greene and the other blacks are each processing this cataclysmic event, calculating the right proportion of outrage and sorrow. But for the white guy, it's simple: he's pegged the needle at tragedy. This awful event has not brought the two sides of the racial divide together. It has illuminated the gulf between black and white. The station owner has the luxury to feel only grief. Greene and the rest have a more complicated emotional and psychological task. They walk past the station owner, shrug, and go home for the night.

In the other scene-a few years later when Greene has gone national with a television talk show, records, and nightclub appearances-the onetime prison deejay is booked on Johnny Carson's show. This is it , his manager, Dewey Hughes (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) tells him. Greene has made the big time. It's gonna be Cosby, Pryor ... and Greene. And Greene, as the movie has proved by this point, has the chops (the voice, the acerbic wit, the killer instinct of a social critic) to go one-on-one with these other rising black luminaries.

But minutes after Carson has finished joshing with Bette Midler, Greene hits the stage and stares at the white audience. He doesn't launch into the expected routine. Instead, he tells the crowd, "I'm just an ex-con." And he explains that when he does his radio show for black people, "I know they're laughing with me, not at me." He goes on: "All I see is a room full of white folks waiting to hear some nigger jokes. I have nothing to say to you." He mutters, "sorry" to Carson and walks off the set. His career (as portrayed in the movie) is over. Greene could not take the final step into respectability-that is, the world of white respectability.

These two interactions between white and black America mark the most dramatic interludes in the movie, which was directed by Kasi Lemmons, a rare commodity in Hollywood: an African-American female director. (In 1997, Lemmons directed Eve's Bayou , a film about a black doctor and his family in Louisiana in the early 1960s, starring Samuel L. Jackson.)

But Lemmons, who is 46 years old, was not interested in turning Petey Greene's short life -- he died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 55 -- into a race-driven tale of blacks and whites. She opted to turn it into a different exploration of race, one involving blacks and other blacks. That is, she examines the dilemma often faced by minorities: confront the system or work within it. Talk To Me zeroes in on the face-off between Greene and Hughes, the sole African-American executive at WOL who found and nurtured Greene and who tried to shoehorn him into the realm of establishment acceptability. This makes for a winning movie, but that focus has an unfortunate side effect; Talk To Me is something of a political movie with little politics.

The arc of Petey Greene's life is classic movie material: rags, riches, downfall. Cheadle superbly captures Greene's badass strutting and his not-too-far-from-the-surface insecurity. This performance will spark talk of a Best Actor nomination. But Talk To Me is a pas de deux, with Greene and Hughes each struggling as a black man to find his place in American society during times of change.

Hughes, a son of a local housing project, wants to be legit. His role model is literally Johnny Carson -- the emcee of white America. (Watching Carson, Hughes says, "showed me there was a world far away from the Anacostia projects.") Hughes first sees Greene, who has street cred and plenty of verbal skill, as the means to higher ratings for his struggling station. Hughes is looking for an authentic black voice because he understands the potential commercial value of such authenticity.

Out of jail -- where he was serving time for armed robbery -- Greene needs someone on the inside to help him monetize his natural talents, which includes the ability to connect with his brothers and sisters with tell-it-like-it-is humor. He looks up Hughes (whose brother is also in jail) and badgers Hughes into giving him a chance on the air, which, of course, Greene blows.

But Hughes realizes the guy deserves a second chance and, if guided, can make the station a bunch of money. Eventually a blacked-owned media empire (that survives to this day in Washington) is born. But first Greene and Hughes have to work out some issues.

Greene slams the ever-aspiring Hughes as a "Sidney Poitier-ass nigger." Hughes is pissed at Greene for being too much like his no-good brother-the-convict: a discredit to their race. Greene calls Hughes a "house nigger." Hughes fires back and tells Greene he's a "field nigger."

Since Talk To Me is a Hollywood film, they both have to be right to some degree. And, of course, they can only succeed together: taking on The Man and working with The Man. (Greene and Hughes are both damn happy when a bunch of white TV executives sign up Greene's television show for national distribution.) At one point, Hughes tells Greene, "I guess I need you to say the things I'm afraid to say, and you need me to do the things you're afraid to do." It's the message moment, and Greene replies, "You ought to put that shit on a greeting card."

Lemmons probes this yin-yang dichotomy of black life with flair and humor. The film has its formulaic moments, but it poignantly and respectfully captures the rhythm, spirit, and clothes--especially the clothes!--of black American life of the 60s and 70s. And Lemmons hands Cheadle a meaty role, befitting one of Hollywood's best actors. (Cheadle has become a true leading man with emotionally rich performances, such as in Hotel Rwanda , and with his save Darfur activism.) But what's missing is the political content of Greene's life and work.

In Talk To Me , Greene barely interacts with the civil rights struggle or the antiwar movement. In real life, Petey Greene was a community activist who railed against poverty and racism. Cheadle's Green mounts a protest against WOL before it hires him. On the air, he makes fun of the foibles of his fellow blacks, and he speaks to his audience from the POV of an angry black man. He refers to a local black politician as a pimp.

But the most controversial remark Greene makes in the movie is a put-down of Motown impresario Berry Gordy. What the real Greene had to say about Vietnam, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, drugs, elections -- and I'm presuming he had some things to say on these and other hot-button subjects -- is not in the movie.

The movie ends with Greene's funeral. Thousands of his fans are there (as was true in real life). Dewey Hughes, who bought WOL after splitting with Greene following the Carson debacle, tells the crowd, "He said the things we were afraid to say." Talk To Me , an engaging film, would be more powerful if it showed more of what Greene had actually said.


David B. Benson said...

The Iraqi war cost counter just passed 444 billion dollars.

And you want me to read a movie review?

Gerald said...

The GOrPs have spoken. They do not like any of their candidates. That is bad news for America!!! The GOrPs only want Hitler I (Bush) and Hitler II (Cheney)in office. There will be NO 2008 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION.

capt said...

Liberty can not be preserved without general knowledge among people." (August 1765) John Adams

"When a cause comes along and you know in your bones that it is just, yet refuse to defend it--at that moment you begin to die. And I have never seen so many corpses walking around talking about justice." - Mumia Abu-Jamal

"But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts us absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many lifeless bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.": Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Author


Thanks ICH Newsletter!

Gerald said...

Supporting the Troops

David B. Benson said...

There went another 11 million dollars.

Just since my last post...

capt said...

Impeach Now

Or Face the End of Constitutional Democracy


07/17/07 "ICH ' -- -- Unless Congress immediately impeaches Bush and Cheney, a year from now the US could be a dictatorial police state at war with Iran.

Bush has put in place all the necessary measures for dictatorship in the form of "executive orders" that are triggered whenever Bush declares a national emergency. Recent statements by Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff, former Republican senator Rick Santorum and others suggest that Americans might expect a series of staged, or false flag, "terrorist" events in the near future.

Many attentive people believe that the reason the Bush administration will not bow to expert advice and public opinion and begin withdrawing US troops from Iraq is that the administration intends to rescue its unpopular position with false flag operations that can be used to expand the war to Iran.

Too much is going wrong for the Bush administration: the failure of its Middle East wars, Republican senators jumping ship, Turkish troops massed on northern Iraq's border poised for an invasion to deal with Kurds, and a majority of Americans favoring the impeachment of Cheney and a near-majority favoring Bush's impeachment. The Bush administration desperately needs dramatic events to scare the American people and the Congress back in line with the militarist-police state that Bush and Cheney have fostered.

William Norman Grigg recently wrote that the GOP is "praying for a terrorist strike" to save the party from electoral wipeout in 2008.
Chertoff, Cheney, the neocon nazis, and Mossad would have no qualms about saving the bacon for the Republicans, who have enabled Bush to start two unjustified wars, with Iran waiting in the wings to be attacked in a third war.

The Bush administration has tried unsuccessfully to resurrect the terrorist fear factor by infiltrating some blowhard groups and encouraging them to talk about staging "terrorist" events. The talk, encouraged by federal agents, resulted in "terrorist" arrests hyped by the media, but even the captive media was unable to scare people with such transparent sting operations.

If the Bush administration wants to continue its wars in the Middle East and to entrench the "unitary executive" at home, it will have to conduct some false flag operations that will both frighten and anger the American people and make them accept Bush's declaration of "national emergency" and the return of the draft. Alternatively, the administration could simply allow any real terrorist plot to proceed without hindrance.

A series of staged or permitted attacks would be spun by the captive media as a vindication of the neoconsevatives' Islamophobic policy, the intention of which is to destroy all Middle Eastern governments that are not American puppet states. Success would give the US control over oil, but the main purpose is to eliminate any resistance to Israel's complete absorption of Palestine into Greater Israel.

Think about it. If another 9/11-type "security failure" were not in the works, why would Homeland Security czar Chertoff go to the trouble of convincing the Chicago Tribune that Americans have become complacent about terrorist threats and that he has "a gut feeling" that America will soon be hit hard?

Why would Republican warmonger Rick Santorum say on the Hugh Hewitt radio show that "between now and November, a lot of things are going to happen, and I believe that by this time next year, the American public's (sic) going to have a very different view of this war."

Throughout its existence the US government has staged incidents that the government then used in behalf of purposes that it could not otherwise have pursued. According to a number of writers, false flag operations have been routinely used by the Israeli state. During the Czarist era in Russia, the secret police would set off bombs in order to arrest those the secret police regarded as troublesome. Hitler was a dramatic orchestrator of false flag operations. False flag operations are a commonplace tool of governments.

Ask yourself: Would a government that has lied us into two wars and is working to lie us into an attack on Iran shrink from staging "terrorist" attacks in order to remove opposition to its agenda?

Only a diehard minority believes in the honesty and integrity of the Bush-Cheney administration and in the truthfulness of the corporate media.

Hitler, who never achieved majority support in a German election, used the Reichstag fire to fan hysteria and push through the Enabling Act, which made him dictator. Determined tyrants never require majority support in order to overthrow constitutional orders.

The American constitutional system is near to being overthrown. Are coming "terrorist" events of which Chertoff warns and Santorum promises the means for overthrowing our constitutional democracy?


*****end of clip*****

PCR - right on the money - as always.


Gerald said...

Plan Iraq

Gerald said...

The Consequences of Occupation

Gerald said...

A Simple Warning

Gerald said...

Three Little Words

Gerald said...

Pittsburgh Paper Turns Against Hitler

Gerald said...

Does Hitler Support the Troops?

Gerald said...

A Warning from Ron Paul

Gerald said...

Right Christians vs the Christian Right

Gerald said...

This Summer?

Gerald said...

Bush Like Hitler

Gerald said...

Cheney Pushes Bush to Act on Iran

Gerald said...

Is This WW III

David B. Benson said...

There went another 12 million dollars...

capt said...

A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money.

Senator Everett Dirksen (1896 - 1969)

capt said...

New Thread