You can love Don Cheadle’s acting and still feel that there’s a pesky reticence to him, that he’s too haunted by the ghosts of respectability to let go. In Boogie Nights, he played a guy who was a porn star and a stereo salesman, and he still came off as the one upright person in the movie; in Traffic and Crash, his California lawmen had spines that were sticks of rectitude. Cheadle hasn’t really taken a role and walked on the wild side — until Talk to Me, a rowdy, richly offbeat biopic that casts him as a trash-talking, hard-living hustler of a disc jockey who just happens to be fast and nasty enough to make himself into a star.
As Ralph Waldo ”Petey” Greene Jr., who became a one-man inner-city media explosion in Washington, D.C., starting in the late ’60s, Cheadle wears a mustache and an Afro that evoke Richard Pryor in his early heyday, and he’s got a shoot your mouth off first and apologize later ferocity that’s Pryoresque, too. When Cheadle spits out the word motherf—er, it’s with Pryor’s percussive flair. Petey doesn’t just say that word — he means it. When we first see him, he’s behind bars, doing an on-air rap for his fellow inmates, and the prison sets the stakes: Petey can say whatever he wants because he’s got nothing to lose. On the street, he dresses in things like red velvet jackets with paisley lapels, and it’s a testament to Cheadle’s presence that he never looks anything but badass in those mack-daddy clown suits.
Being a DJ, says Petey, is the only thing he’s good at that isn’t against the law. To land a job at WOL, a local R&B station that has seen better days, he has to win over Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the slick, smart program director who, in a terrific pool-hall scene, is revealed to be a lot less of an Oreo than he appears. The first time that Petey goes on the air, he takes a hilarious swipe at Motown’s Berry Gordy, and the only thing funnier is his apology. The station owner (Martin Sheen) orders him yanked, until he sees that Petey’s candid rant is what the people want. It’s the prattle of bars and barbershops — the folk wit of the streets that he turns into a DJ’s patter.
Directed by the gifted Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), Talk to Me could have been Good Morning, Vietnam in the ghetto. Instead, it digs into the relationship between Petey and Dewey, whose love/hate, street/suit tension expresses what the movie presents as the central emotional rift in African-American life. I wish Talk to Me were less episodic, but the two actors are marvelous. The elegant, magnetic Ejiofor makes Dewey a complexly divided man, embodying the vast contradictions of a reformed player who models himself on Johnny Carson. Cheadle plays Petey as an antic hedonist, fueled by booze, rage, and fear: When he appears on The Tonight Show, it’s a devastating sequence — a crossover dream turned nightmare — yet Petey’s inability to be anyone but himself is the thing that gives him soul. That’s the movie’s audacity: It makes you see why his failure is essential to his success. A-