"Talk to Me," opening at the Metro and Meridian on Friday, is the story of a friendship — or, as director Kasi Lemmons put it, something a little more.
“Talk to Me,” opening at the Metro and Meridian on Friday, is the story of a friendship — or, as director Kasi Lemmons put it, something a little more. It is, she said, the story of two straight men who fell in love — not in the romantic way, but as comrades and friends. They would work together all day, and then go home and talk on the phone; two very different men who each brought out the best in the other.
“They were best friends,” she said, “and they loved each other.”
Of the two, both African Americans in Washington, D.C., during the turbulent ’60s, one is long gone. Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, a plain-speaking television and radio talk show host and community activist legendary in D.C. (most notably for calming down the city on the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination), died of liver cancer in 1984 at age 53. But Dewey Hughes, former program director at D.C.’s WOL-AM radio station and Greene’s eventual manager, had long wanted the story of their friendship told.
“I don’t think of this as the Petey Greene story,” said Lemmons of her movie, which was scripted by Michael Genet (Hughes’ son) and Rick Famuyiwa. “This is a movie in which Petey Greene’s character appears. The Petey Greene story could be a whole other movie, the life of that guy.” The idea here, she said, was “to bring this colorful character into this movie from Dewey’s point of view.”
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The movie, which spans the mid-’60s to the early ’70s, sets up the two men as near-opposites. In the ’60s, Hughes was a straitlaced, ambitious young program director at WOL, a white-owned station with a predominantly black audience. (Years later, Hughes would buy the station and make it the foundation for Radio One Inc., now the largest broadcasting company for African-American and urban listeners in the United States.) He met the far more flamboyant Greene under inauspicious circumstances: during visiting hours at Lorton Reformatory prison, where Greene was serving time for armed robbery — alongside Hughes’ brother.
Released early for helping to talk down an inmate threatening suicide, the fast-talking Greene presented himself at Hughes’ station, wanting an on-air job. Hughes took a chance, and soon Greene became a popular D.C. figure, with a radio show titled “Rapping with Petey Green” and a television talk show, “Petey Greene’s Washington.” A community organizer with a self-proclaimed “Ph.D. in poverty” (he was affiliated for much of his life with the anti-poverty group United Planning Organization), Greene was determined to use his popularity toward good ends.
“In his folksy way,” wrote Lurma Rackley (the D.C. writer to whom Greene dictated his memoirs) recently in The Washington Post, “he aimed to spur people to action, to force accountability, to demand a piece of the pie.”
Lemmons, a former actress (best known for playing Jodie Foster’s FBI pal Ardelia in “The Silence of the Lambs”) now turned director (“Eve’s Bayou,” “The Caveman’s Valentine”), spoke glowingly of her cast, headed by Don Cheadle as Greene and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Hughes. She described working with them on the film’s emotional centerpiece — the moments and days following the news of King’s murder.
No tapes survive of Greene’s broadcasts at that time, but he spent many hours on the air at the request of the mayor, who hoped the popular host could “talk the city down.”
“Petey was nervous about it,” Lemmons said. “He thought, ‘What if I try and fail? What if I try to talk them down and I can’t? Then I’ll be the person who couldn’t talk them down.’ “
To help her actors (many of whom were too young to remember the event) find the right notes, Lemmons drew on a scene from her own childhood in Boston. “I had a grounding memory, as a very small child, of my mother keening, a sound coming out of her that I’ve never heard before or since,” she said. “I said, ‘What is it?’ and I thought she said, ‘The king is dead.’
“To hear the scream that came out of her, it was like the world was ending. Not like somebody had died, like the world was ending. That’s something I tried to share with the actors.”
Though Hughes was a consultant on the film and involved in the production process — meeting the actors, talking to the production’s designers about how the sets should look — he didn’t want to see the film until it was completely done. Lemmons fondly described the experience of watching the film at a special screening in the spring, with Hughes and members of his and Greene’s families.
“It was one of the great experiences of my career,” she said. “They loved it. It was a wonderful, wonderful screening. They all stood up and applauded.” Smiling, she remembered Hughes (who sat in the back) walking through the crowd to get to Lemmons, at the front. “It was pretty good,” she said, clearly still moved by the memory. “As good as it gets.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com