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Monday, 29 November 1999 18:00
Local opening date: 7/27/2007
Reviewed by Martha K. Baker
Just when you thought that the genre of the movie biography had been cast in amber and archived, along comes a movie like Talk to Me. This is a biography of Ralph Waldo Green, known as Petey, mayor of Ptown, one of the mouths that roared in the Sixties.

Petey Green managed to survive nine years in prison by becoming a disc jockey with more attitude than LPs. He finagled himself from behind the walls and flamed his way into a job at WOL radio. He knew it was all about connections, so he connected with an inmate's brother, one Dewey Hughes. Mike Epps plays the brother, understated, hurt, an unpullable thread throughout Hughes' life.

Just about the time Green was available for work, Hughes was promising his boss, E.G. Sondering, played by Martin Sheen, that the station could really be the voice of the people in the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1966. All it had to do was replace the morning disc jockey, Sunny Jim, played by Vondie Curtis Hall, and stop playing Motown. Cedric the Entertainer plays well the oily and mellifluous DJ, Nighthawk.

When the two of them - the ex-con and the suit - connected, there were fireworks. Add the combustion of Petey's girlfriend, Vernell, who made hookers look dainty, and you have something unbeatable. Taraji P. Henson plays Vernell - she of the gum-cracking smarty-pantsedness that grows into womanly wisdom.

The two leads in Talk to Me show their mettle: neither is ahead of the other, each supports the other. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Dewey, which means he has to be smart, ambitious, and managerial but also a brother, both to his real brother in prison and to Petey, whom he loved deeply. Don Cheadle plays Petey Green, which means he has to be sassy, charged, and fully aware of the limits of his character, a man who died of cancer at 53. Cheadle carefully handles Green's jokes and his demands and his grief at the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Cheadle links Green's speaking in couplets to the British aristocrats of the 17th century and the street punks of rap, with a little Mohammed Ali thrown in.

All of these actors work under the impressively capable hands of director Kasi Lemmons. Lemmons does an excellent job of weaving newsreels with her movie, especially in the riot scenes following King's assassination. She well defines the passage of time from 1966 to 1982 with subtle headlines but also with a coutourier's way with costume - such as the width of ties or the flare of a pants leg and the shine of a pimp-like shirt. In defining Petey Green's life by the great brotherly love he shared with Dewey Hughes, "Talk to Me" becomes an exceptional biography.

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