An icon, may we add, whose political muse was Richard Pryor; whose style guru was Superfly; whose philosophy was "Speak loudly and carry a big mike"; and who grooved to James Brown and Marvin Gaye cuts that make his biopic not only a must-see, but a must-hear.
Working from a script by Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa, Lemmons frames Greene's story as the unlikely partnership between the foulmouthed ex-con and Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the squeaky-clean company man at Washington R&B station WOL.
As in most working relationships, one partner's weaknesses are balanced by the other's strengths. Lemmons' film underlines the importance of not labeling others as a hustler or an Oreo. For that guy in the pimp threads might be a political powerhouse. And the one in the Brooks Brothers might know his way around a pool table better than you'd guess. And together you might get places you never could if you were alone. In Lemmons' film, Dewey and Petey are the Butch and Sundance of New Frontier Washington.
Hughes' first brush with Greene is at the prison where the con is a cellmate of his brother's and the profanely funny host of the jailhouse radio broadcast. The business-suited radio exec regards the scrappy convict like a pest to be swatted, if not exterminated.
But upon his release from prison, the pest will not be denied. When he's summarily turned down for a broadcast audition, Petey recruits his pals to picket the station where manager E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen) is trying to bail out his sinking flagship.
While the smooth-jazz jock "Sunny Jim" (Vondie Curtis Hall, Lemmons' real-life spouse) may be unthreatening to white management, he's not connecting with black listeners. Neither does Petey his first time around.
But in the uproarious sequence where Petey finds his voice, he finds his audience. To his surprise, he helps unify listeners balkanized by race and bias. And in the riots following the assassination of Dr. King, he helps calm the roiling capital.
Lemmons, best known for the dreamy expressionism of Eve's Bayou and The Caveman's Valentine, brilliantly captures the psychedelic colors and jazzy rhythms of the '60s, when extremism was in vogue both in politics and fashion. Props to costume designer Gersha Phillips, whose every ensemble is a visual joke, and to the gifted cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, who helps Lemmons re-create the era's sunshine-and-shadow mood.
If Cheadle is the accelerator of the story, Ejiofor (so great in Dirty Pretty Things) is the safety belt. As the reckless Petey and responsible Dewey, they're a great team. Still, I wished that we knew something of Dewey's personal life (Petey's is represented by live-in love Taraji P. Henson, who makes a big impression in a small amount of screen time) and that the film didn't get so episodic in its hasty third act.
Despite its flaws, Lemmons' wise film celebrates brotherhood and community. It's cinematic proof of Thoreau's insight that it takes two to speak the truth: One to speak. And the other to hear.
Talk to Me ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Produced by Joe Fries, Mark Gordon, Sidney Kimmel and Josh McLaughlin, directed by Kasi Lemmons, written by Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa, photography by Stéphane Fontaine, music by Terence Blanchard, distributed by Focus Features.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.
Petey Greene. . . Don Cheadle
Dewey Hughes. . . Chiwetel Ejiofor
Vernell Watson. . . Taraji P. Henson
Sunny Jim. . . Vondie Curtis Hall
E.G. Sonderling. . . Martin Sheen
Parent's guide: R (profanity, sexuality)
Playing at: UA RiverView, The Bridge, Showcase at the Ritz Center.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/