Jenice Armstrong | Don's dandy as Petey

Cheadle nails role as legendary D.C. DJ

Posted: June 26, 2007

BET AWARDS 2007. 8 tonight, BET.

DON CHEADLE AS the late great Petey Greene? I couldn't quite see it.

Being from the nonofficial side of Washington, D.C. - or Chocolate City, as Petey used to refer to it - I've never forgotten this folk hero and the profound impact he made on the city of Washington during the turbulent late 1960s and '70s.

Petey Greene was a street cat, as they used to say. He wore platform shoes, bell-bottoms, wide lapels and other flamboyant styles of the era.

He couldn't conjugate a verb correctly if his life depended on it. But you know what, he didn't care. As he told one embarrassed listener who called to complain about his grammar, "Would you rather I say, 'I is rich' or 'I am poor'?"

Growing up, I had no choice but to listen to Greene's radio show. It seemed to always be on whenever we all piled into our gold 1968 station wagon. My dad was a huge fan. So despite my four siblings' loud protests to tune the station to something else - anything else - "Petey Greene, Washington" was a mainstay in our lives.

That harsh, raspy voice of his was the soundtrack of our lives as we rolled through the streets of D.C., still scarred from the 1968 riots. When we weren't whining in unison we'd quiet down and listen to the call-in talk show because it was a window into the forbidden world of grown folk. We'd listen wide-eyed to talk about pimps, criminal exploits, corrupt government officials and Black Pride - all in the same conversation.

But back to Don Cheadle. As I said, I just couldn't see him playing Petey Greene. For starters, he looks nothing like him. Greene was short, stocky and light-skinned. Cheadle is dark and has a sleek form, like a panther. Philly's own Terrence Howard, who was originally slated to play the role, was a more likely fit. Who does toughies with a heart better than he does?

But then, I got a chance to see "Talk to Me," the new Focus Film project starring Cheadle as Greene, and I have to tell you: He made a believer out of me. From the very second he struts on screen in his prison blues and teeny-weeny Afro, the physical dissimilarities between him and the late Petey Greene evaporate.

I gave up the fight between reality and re-enactment.

Cheadle becomes Petey Greene, reincarnated and in the flesh. I don't know how he pulled it off, but the Academy Award-nominated Cheadle becomes Greene the same way he became Paul Rusesabagina in "Hotel Rwanda."

Originally, Cheadle had been tapped to play the uptight radio executive Dewey Hughes, (portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor), who meets Greene in prison, where he already is a popular DJ and social force. When I asked Cheadle about the process of transforming himself into Greene, he acted as if it "wasn't nothin' but a thing," as the saying goes.

"It's what I've been training to do since I was 17 years old," he said nonchalantly from a hotel room in D.C.'s Georgetown neighborhood.

Although it's set in D.C., "Talk to Me," which opens July 13, has a universal appeal because at its heart it's about a little explored topic - friendship between black men. It's about two African-American men born into poverty who rise above their circumstances - but who takes vastly different approaches to get there. Greene becomes a petty street criminal and winds up behind bars. Hughes' ambition leads him to become a conservative radio executive with an eye on the big office. And that's where the tension comes in. Initially, Hughes comes off as a "go along to get along" kind of guy. You know, the type that doesn't make waves if he doesn't have to. In contrast, Greene was anything but. He's a man of the street and doesn't care who knows it.

"Petey always wanted to keep his credibility on a street level with people who were just everyday people," Cheadle explained, sitting cross-legged in a chair.

"The Dewey character in the movie was really trying to move up . . . what this means is mainstreaming yourself into a white society. . . . Petey Greene was strongly against that.

"It's not really a story about this one guy," Cheadle told me. "It's just an interesting story to watch how it develops.

"Everybody can respond to a friendship. Everybody understands the dynamics of a friendship - what makes them challenging, what makes them worth fighting for," he pointed out.

There are parallels between this latest project, as well as his leading role in "Hotel Rwanda," for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Both were about men who stood up in the face of adversity.

Even after he collected a mantel of awards for "Hotel Rwanda," Cheadle has continued agitating for social change among warring factions in Africa.

Last month a book he co-authored with human-rights activist John Prendergast, "Not On Our Watch," was published. It addresses the atrocities taking place in the Darfur region of Africa. Cheadle also is working on a documentary on the topic.

Tonight he'll be honored for his efforts during the BET Awards with an award for his humanitarianism.

"I don't think you do right about it on the news," he complained. "Darfur was covered about 47 or 48 minutes by most of the four [networks]. Anna Nicole Smith got something like 1,000 minutes or hours.

"It makes sense that people don't know that much about Darfur," he added. "We pay much more attention than . . . the rest of the world to Darfur and their atrocities."

The genocide "has a great potential to change soon if our government works in a multilateral campaign as opposed to working unilaterally."

"As far as 'Talk to Me,' " Cheadle said, "I hope people will come and support this film because it's a great achievement. And I don't always feel that way about a movie." *

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