Talk To Me
Talk To Me In Theaters
Don Cheadle portrays the one and only Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene Jr. in "Talk to Me." Petey's story is funny, dramatic, inspiring - and real. In the mid-to-late 1960s, in Washington, D.C., vibrant soul music and exploding social consciousness were combining to unique and powerful effect. It was the place and time for Petey to fully express himself - sometimes to outrageous effect - and "tell it like it is." With the support of his irrepressible and tempestuous girlfriend Vernell Watson (Taraji P. Henson), the newly minted excon talks his way into an on-air radio gig. He forges a friendship and a partnership with fellow prison inmate Milo's (Mike Epps) brother Dewey Hughes (double Golden Globe Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor). From the first wild morning on the air, Petey relies on the more straight-laced Dewey to run interference at WOL-AM, where Dewey is the program director. At the station, Petey becomes an iconic radio personality, surpassing even the established popularity of his fellow disc jockeys, Nighthawk (Cedric The Entertainer) and Sunny Jim (Vondie Curtis Hall). Combining biting humor with social commentary, Petey openly courts controversy for station owner E.G. Sonderling (Emmy Award winner Martin Sheen). Petey was determined to make not just himself but his community heard during an exciting and turbulent period in American history. As Petey's voice, humor, and spirit surge across the airwaves with the vitality of the era, listeners tune in to hear not only incredible music but also a man speaking directly to them about race and power in America like few people ever have. Through the years, Petey's "the truth just is" style - on- and off-air - would redefine both Petey and Dewey, and empower each to become the man he would most like to be.
STARRING: Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Mike Epps, Vondie Curtis Hall, Cedric the Entertainer, Martin Sheen (the token honky in the all black film)
DIRECTOR: Kasi Lemmons
STUDIO: Focus Features
RATING: R (For language, and sex)
Wild About Movies Grade: D
"Talk To Me"
Behind The Scenes
When, over 15 years after Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene had died, Pelagius Films producer Joe Fries heard Petey's story from his friend Dewey Hughes, who was Petey's longtime creative partner, Fries "saw it as a dream project." Producer Mark Gordon agreed, and took the project out as a pitch with Fries. The idea did not sell – but the project moved forward as a movie just the same.
For, as Fries explains, "I felt so passionately about this story that I contacted screenwriter Michael Genet, who is Dewey Hughes' son – with no guarantee of a home for the project."
Genet remembers, "Joe Fries and [executive producer] Joey Rappa called and told me they wanted to do a movie about Petey and Dewey. As Joe started talking through the story with me, it all came rushing back like a raging river because I had lived it; my father and his best friend were two powerful brothers – and the talk of our town, D.C.
"I got together with Dewey and we relived his days with Petey; all the ups and downs, and trials and triumphs."
A few years later, the script struck a chord with producer Josh McLaughlin, who had since joined the Mark Gordon Company. He notes, "Joe Fries is from D.C., and so am I. In the late '60s and early '70s, when Petey Greene had hit his stride, that city was one of the coolest places in the world to be. Hearing Petey's name, I remembered that there was a community center office dedicated to him.
"I found it was very difficult, though, to remember a non-'blaxploitation' movie about an urban city in the late '60s/early '70s. The three Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby movies, beginning with Uptown Saturday Night, did depict that period, and of course there was that great documentary/concert film Wattstax. There were also several civil rights pictures, but those were Southern-oriented. Those are all good films, but the 'black is beautiful' era in a world of change has largely gone unexplored. Petey's story, about speaking your mind, was a window into there."
Genet remarks, "When I was writing the script, I knew I had to stay true to the voices of these two men. Not to have done so would have been to dishonor them both. There's cool that you either have or you don't, and Dewey had it. The same work ethic he instilled in Petey, he instilled in me; paying one's dues not only in this business but in life.
"And Petey – well, Petey was a sharp dresser and his Afro was always perfect, with never a strand out of place. But he was stone cold street, with a voice to match. Whenever he opened his mouth and spoke, I would jump. As funny as he was, even as a boy I could hear the pain in his voice. Listening to him on the radio, I didn't always understand what he was speaking about. But I couldn't change that dial; he had me – and an entire city – mesmerized and hypnotized."
At the core of the film is the real-life relationship between Petey Greene and Dewey Hughes. McLaughlin says, "Their friendship is the foundation of Talk to Me. What eventually caused a rift between these two – who were like brothers during turbulent times for this country – is that Dewey assumed Petey wanted what he wanted for him."
Genet reflects, "What I found in telling their story was that there is a love shared between black men that we almost never hear tell of. You won't find it defined in any text books or dictionaries, yet it exists."
McLaughlin adds, "The film is a drama, but with a lot of humor, and that's also their relationship; with two completely different people relating, you're going to have conflict but you're also going to find humor."
Gordon comments, "If you elicit humor from the characters, who have been established as real human beings, then you can find the truth in the moments between them. It's one reason I fell in love with this story."
Screenwriter Rick Famuyiwa did as well, albeit initially from a different perspective. He reports, "What drew me in first was Petey. He was an iconoclast, and a torchbearer of the oral tradition that is an integral part of African-American culture. To me, he represented a bridge between the orators of the civil rights movement and the orators of today, hip-hop musicians. Like a rapper, he was the voice of people who didn't have a say. What he had to say wasn't always what people wanted to hear – both inside the community and out – but it represented a truth he felt had to be expressed. I felt he could be contemporary and relatable to today's hip-hop-reared generation.
"If Petey was the spark that piqued my interest, then Dewey was the fire that kept me warm. He could see the best in Petey and, in a larger sense, the best in all of us. Each of these men needed what the other had in order to succeed, and I wanted to focus not only on that part of their relationship but also on how they embodied an ongoing conversation in the African-American community – about what is considered 'keeping it real.' Dewey – who came from the same streets and neighborhoods as Petey did – was as real as Petey, but chose to fight inside the system, so that artists like Petey could find success in the mainstream."
With Famuyiwa working on the script, Talk to Me went back into active development at the Mark Gordon Company. Another notable independent film producer, Sidney Kimmel, also saw the project's potential. "To me," he says, "Petey's story was moving and original." Sidney Kimmel Entertainment came on board to join the Mark Gordon Company and Pelagius Films in backing the film's development through studio turnaround as well as a key casting issue.
One actor who remained interested through the years of development was Don Cheadle, who would ultimately be an executive producer on the film in addition to starring in it. Cheadle had sparked to the project because, he explains, "You sweat it out for the ones that are close to your heart. This just seemed to me to be an honest depiction of a man who was a real live wire and was definitely his own person. Petey wasn't afraid to court controversy, or to be on the front lines of the issues; civil rights, free speech, national government, local government, riots…His story is relevant today because very few people are willing to stand up and point out what, in my estimation, are clear inadequacies. Our government is not necessarily behaving in a way that's for most of the people. We just don't have someone who stood out the way Petey did on WOL and on television.
"Talk to Me went through many, many different permutations. With our budget, nobody was going to get rich; everyone did this movie because they loved the story and wanted to be part of telling it. I first heard about it through a friend of mine, [the late filmmaker] Ted Demme. Finally, Kasi Lemmons got the material, and spent so much time with it so that the vision – her vision – became really clear."
Kasi Lemmons says, "You don't have to be a Washingtonian, or black, to appreciate someone who was this dynamic. Here was a man who was the voice of his community, and who said things so many of us would like to say. Petey wasn't always right, but he meant what he said. What I also saw was the potential for this biopic to evolve into something enormously entertaining and accessible.
"Petey was a real person, but as a filmmaker coming to him fresh I didn't want to feel constrained by what-happened-when. What I did want was to stay true to the emotional authenticity of the characters."
Lemmons met with Dewey Hughes, who signed on as consultant to the now-coalescing project, which Focus Features – the final piece of the production puzzle – joined.
McLaughlin notes. "Dewey was a resource we constantly called upon. We would go to him and ask, 'What happened then? What was it like?' He was there, and he would tell us all about it."
Lemmons remembers, "The material began to – no pun intended – talk to me, and really loudly, too. I fell in love with the story and the characters, especially the contrast between these two friends. As a story about friendship, it's universal. Petey and Dewey, like many men, shy away from revealing their vulnerabilities. It didn't mean that they weren't close; it meant that they had trouble expressing themselves to each other. Vernell was also very special to me, because she embodies strong women from our history that we don't see depicted often enough."
McLaughlin notes that, during script meetings, Kasi "didn't talk about why it was an important movie to do; she wanted to talk about what it was going to feel like – hip and relevant. We all recommended that Talk to Me needed to be a really cool place to spend a couple of hours, and Kasi already had gotten that.
"It just seemed like the logical next step; she finally said, 'Would you sit down with me about it, as a director?' And it was like, let's go!"
Gordon comments, "The job of a producer is to make sure that everyone on a picture is making the same movie. With Kasi, we knew that would be the case."
Lemmons reflects, "In seeking to direct Talk to Me, I was thinking about how to realize that time period with all the color and the activism. Right now, we are living in an age where people are afraid to speak for fear of being labeled unpatriotic, anti-American, racist, sexist, whatever…It was bracing to be going back to a place where someone like Petey said what people were feeling and gave them a voice.
"I wanted to make it as an uplifting but funky and unconventional film. If I made it into a slick comedy, that would be doing Petey and the material a disservice. It needed to be gritty, musical, and authentic to the period."
Lemmons adds, "Petey Greene is a very different kind of role for Don Cheadle, and he's wonderful as Petey."
Cheadle points out, "When making a movie about a real character – and I've made several – I always refer to the script. It's your Bible. Yes, you do your research and try to understand who the person you're playing is. But you're trying to find the truth in the story that you're trying to tell.
"Every script has to tell its story in 110-116 pages. The Talk to Me script is well-constructed and depicts Petey in the totality of who he was; not necessarily a heroic figure, or a tragic one, but as a man who had a lot of failings and a lot of successes and who didn't soft-pedal anything. I don't believe he had a lot of 'woulda, coulda, shoulda.' He wasn't shy, and he had his demons to deal with, too. So this is not 'The Petey Greene Story.'"
The actor adds, "Dewey Hughes realized that Petey was raw talent, a 'voice of the people.' Dewey had gone through a lot of manicuring to prepare for the position he had gotten to. He appreciated that Petey could get away with saying things and doing things that Dewey might have felt strongly about, but that his position dictated he be more politic about.
"When I met with Dewey Hughes, he was very honest about how Petey didn't necessarily want what he wanted. He said, 'I was trying to do things for Petey that he wasn't necessarily comfortable with, or interested in exploring.'"
At his own expense, Chiwetel Ejiofor traveled to Los Angeles from the U.K. to meet about playing Dewey Hughes and to read on film with Don Cheadle. "They were magic together," remembers Lemmons. "It was instantly apparent that they had great chemistry. Everyone saw what our movie could now be, exploring the bond between these two men, with these two actors."
Ejiofor comments, "The script read as dramatic and comedic, and quite detailed about the friendship and the development of these two characters. Then there were these extraordinary scenes interweaving historical events. So I very much wanted to collaborate with Don and Kasi and make this movie."
Taraji P. Henson also had a number of reasons for wanting to be part of Talk to Me. "I'm from Washington D.C., and the '60s was the time to be alive. So this was a chance for me to relive the period in the city without having being there," she notes. "Aside from my hometown, I'm a huge fan of Kasi and Don's work. It was a chance to work with the best. Vernell jumped off the page for me; some people might look at her and think she's a bit much, but this woman who is true to who she really is and who is comfortable in her skin. And that's a great place to be.
"Whatever Petey's feeling, whatever he's thinking, he'll say it. 'P.C.' for him is 'Petey Correct.' She knows he can be self-destructive, so it takes a woman like Vernell to keep Petey on his game; she's his backbone, and his pep team. She's vested in him, so it has to work!"
Cheadle laughs, "They're bananas together. But Vernell is there for her man – come hell or high water. So it's grounding for them both, too."
Mike Epps signed on to play Milo, Dewey's estranged brother and Petey's fellow prison inmate. Epps says, "Dewey is ashamed of his brother's situation. Milo would prefer Dewey to love him unconditionally, no matter what situation he's in; he doesn't have the opportunities that Dewey does. What he does have is love and strength for Dewey."
Casting for Petey's colleagues at WOL was equally important because, as Cheadle notes, "The station was ahead of its time, and was a precursor to a lot of the modern stations we have today. There's several characters in there, bouncing off of each other."
Genet, who himself worked and was on-air at the station years later, remembers, "As a boy, whenever I visited the station, there was always a frenetic energy that was present – which I loved."
To play the flamboyant old-school deejay Nighthawk ("takin' you into the night grooves on the big O-L"), the project needed an actor who could credibly wear his coat as a cape; have wine and candles in the studio; have two Dalmatians as regular companions; and speak in a deep, sensuous voice that would lead female listeners to send him ladies' wear along with their photos. Lemmons laughs, "Well, that could only be Cedric The Entertainer, right? He had the presence and the perfect tonal quality we needed."
Cedric reveals, "This character isn't like the usual comical ones I play. As a former late-night college deejay, I can easily identify with Nighthawk. When you're in a smaller station and have a uniquely smooth voice, you'll use it to beguile all the women. Nighthawk has a swagger and a certain degree of braggadocio.
"Nighthawk was the deejay name of a man named Bob Terry. I didn't listen to tapes of him because I wanted to define the character myself, and Kasi agreed. So I applied myself to being Nighthawk the persona, not Bob the person."
For Cedric, the characterization came together both from inside and out. He notes, "I tried a few different voices, and we went with smooth and slow. The costume department did a great job; I added the glasses with the big frames for his slightly more cosmopolitan look. If I had an idea, I would talk to Kasi about it. As a director, she knows what she wants out of her film, and out of the story she is trying to tell.
"Now, we all know Don Cheadle as an amazing actor in serious movies, but working with him on Talk to Me, I found out that he's also very witty – and fast!"
Vondie Curtis Hall was asked by Lemmons, who is his real-life wife, to read the script, and signed on to play WOL deejay Sunny Jim. He offers, "It's something different for Kasi to bring her sensibility to; a period piece with a lot of testosterone. I thought it was an incredible script that showed the fascinating journey of a guy who got a second chance, and became inspirational. Those stories appeal to me as an actor.
"Dewey Hughes gave me the rundown on Sunny Jim Kelsey, 'the man with the plan' who came up through the ranks and later became the first black program manager at a major radio station. He was one of the biggest deejays in New York and then even more so in D.C. He was very conservative and religious, and in many ways felt that Petey was not a respectable person to be representing black people on the radio. But ultimately, Sunny Jim became one of Petey's ardent fans and supporters, and a close friend."
As encouraged by Lemmons, Hall "listened to some tapes, then tried to find my own way of playing Sunny Jim without doing an impersonation. His wardrobe did always have some 'sunny' – some yellow – in it. And, yes, he really did have a horn he used on-air, named Widget – which was probably a little much for the morning…
"To be working as an actor again with this crowd was a pleasure. Kasi has a great eye, and a clear knowledge of the script and every nuance and character motivation in it. On the set, she knows when she has it in a scene, and when she doesn't have it; 'No, try this," or 'He doesn't do that.' She'll talk to you about it until you can both come to a consensus. I think actors respond to that; she's an actor's director."
Cheadle remarks, "I've made movies with directors who don't know what they want. That was never the case with Kasi; she knew exactly what she wanted. Yet she was still able to be collaborative and flexible, and hear other ideas and perspectives."
Henson clarifies, "Kasi's thing is, as long as she can believe what you're doing and it's within the story and not taking away from the script, she's totally open to it. If it's not working, she'll let you know about it."
Cheadle adds, "Talk to Me is so much about two men bonding and dealing with a power structure, and with who they are and who they are with each other. So it was interesting to have a woman directing Chiwetel and myself, because often she would have a perspective that we didn't have.
"I loved acting with Chiwetel. I had met him a couple of years before, in Africa when we were filming Hotel Rwanda, because he's a friend of [fellow Hotel Rwanda Academy Award nominee] Sophie Okonedo's; they had done Dirty Pretty Things together. Our scenes in Talk to Me wouldn't have worked as well if I didn't dig the dude playing opposite me – and I've seen that happen. But Chiwetel is a great actor, and is going to go a long way in this business. Also, he does a much better American accent than I do a British one!"
Ejiofor had the luxury of speaking with Dewey Hughes to get firsthand information from the man he was to portray on-screen. The U.K. actor says, "I wanted to find out what the feeling was on the streets of Washington at the time – what with riots, protests, the Vietnam War…People got galvanized through different aspects of Washington's social and political life. Petey and Dewey found themselves at the heart of what was happening in their city."
Epps had a different kind of direct insight to his role. He matter-of-factly states, "I know Milo ten times, a hundred times. I was incarcerated back when I was a teenager, so I know the feeling of being in jail; you feel the lowest you ever have."
D.C. native Henson spoke to friends and relatives who well remembered Petey and his influence on the people of "Chocolate City" – a term he had helped to popularize in the early 1970s – and also watched documentaries. She reflects, "I learned things on this movie that I didn't learn when I was in school; it was another history lesson. Those were heavy times; we needed someone to speak up and say the things that people on the street were saying but could only hear amongst themselves. Petey put it out there for everyone to hear. It was 'P-Town,' meaning, 'Petey's Town.'
"When I invited my friend and my cousin to the set and they heard Don as Petey, the reaction was, 'He sounds just like him.'"
Cheadle says, "I did have audio clips – speeches and recordings – of Petey to study. I tried to pick up his vocal patterns. But, you know, Petey's speaking voice is very unique; at best, I've approximated it. Although sometimes I myself would be speaking about issues – and Petey's voice would start coming through."
Fries notes, "The late '60s and '70s were a time when activists agitated for change. Dewey chose to work quietly for change within the system, while Petey challenged the system as loudly and as often as he could."
Ejiofor muses, "Dewey appears to be a complete conformist. Yet, when he becomes program director, his principal objective is to promote black culture and the aspirations, hopes, and ideals of black people. Petey recognizes that Dewey is doing all this, which is why they become such close friends. Although they have very different methods, their shared goal is to remove the invisibility blanket from the black working class."
Cheadle adds, "If Petey Greene were around today, he would have years and years of material to talk about. The conditions are perfect for him right now."
Martin Sheen was approached to play WOL station owner E.G. Sonderling. The actor notes, "I find most of talk radio today boring, but I could listen to Petey Greene all day. I really liked the script, which I saw as a very human story. When I spoke with Kasi, I said, 'I'm particularly impressed with the sequences following Reverend King's assassination,' because I remembered that time so very well, and I told her a personal story about being in Reverend King's presence."
McLaughlin says, "Having Martin Sheen in Talk to Me is a dream come true. He was in the civil-rights trenches in that time period."
Sheen states, "Those were extraordinary times – and painful ones. In five short years, we lost three leaders; John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. Reverend King was the pinnacle, and we're not going to see that again in my lifetime, unfortunately.
"I saw Sonderling as corporate, but with a soul. He's a good man, but he's also practical. He's conscious about employing black people during this time, and he loves the music. Although his first – and second! – impression of Petey isn't very good, Sonderling gives him and Dewey trust, and then gets out of their way."
Lemmons notes, "Martin found the perfect balance of conservative and compassionate that we needed for Sonderling."
Of working with Kasi Lemmons, Martin Sheen says, "the thing that is so impressive about her is her confidence. I directed a feature film once in my life, and I remember it as the most strenuous of times. But she's laid-back yet is also 100% focused and supportive. It doesn't matter where an idea comes from – props department, camera operator, actors; if it works, it works."
The entire crew of Talk to Me concentrated on capturing an era – though not always one that was documented in the history books. Lemmons says, "A lot of the story takes place in parts of Washington that are not monument-heavy, so we chose locations that had a community feel.
"[Cinematographer] Stéphane Fontaine and I wanted a lush look for the '70s sequences. In general, though, we all watched a great deal of documentary footage and tried to rise to the challenge of matching it."
Production designer Warren Alan Young felt the full weight of the past in his efforts to recreate Washington – where he resides part-time – from the late 1960s through to the early 1980s. He offers, "The idea was to recreate what existed as best as we possibly could, so that Kasi could tell this story. A lot of time and energy went into researching exactly what things looked like – building façades, the front of the newspapers, the label on a 7-Up can…Our graphic artists had to make a lot of signage, because things we found are 30-40 years old and we needed things to look fresh in the scenes in the movie. We hope audience members who were will look at the film and say, 'Yes, that was it.'
"Washington is one of the most heavily documented cities on the planet, particularly during the '60s and '70s. Yet there are very few images from there – or anywhere in the Unites States – of black people outside of protests and crime, and in day-to-day life. I did find one man, on the Internet, who was uploading his family snapshots dating back to the 1950s, so that was helpful."
Young notes, "I wanted to – I wouldn't say, 'establish a color palette,' but apply the colors that we know existed in the time periods we're depicting. We also had to create colors that were complementary to all of our actors, so we did a number of camera tests with colors to find what would work where and with whom. Overall, we were able to cultivate a very warm feel with greens, oranges, reds, and yellows; the only time we see blue is in Dewey's apartment – a sort of federal blue, given that he's a formal guy.
"My department worked very closely with the costume department on Talk to Me; they had a copy of the color schemes for each set so they knew what they were walking into, or onto. We had to make some changes along the way; a lot of people tend to think of style in terms of decade-long increments, but we learned it's a lot faster than that. From the mid-1960s to the '80s, it was about every three years. You may have been 'in' with your hairstyle in '66, but by '69 or '70 you had to move on."
Costume designer Gersha Phillips took her cues not only from Young's color coordinating, but also from Lemmons' concepts of Dewey as "button-down and pressed" and Petey as "out there." Phillips searched through vintage magazines, books, and photographs for inspiration. Given music's importance to the era, she also looked at iconic recording artists' styles.
Phillips reveals, "I was truly excited to be exploring this particular period – where people became empowered and tried to effect change – and have a little more fun than on the average movie. Men's fashion was fabulous and exciting in the late 1960s – and into the early '70s, even; I wish men would dress more like that now! Just looking at the things that people actually wore – wow. There was so much experimentation with different fabrics and colors. To our eyes now, these outfits may look strange, but they're what actually was worn.
"We found an article in Esquire that talked about the 'male plumage,' as in peacock. It was all about dressing to be seen, combining accessories from head to toe so that everything was on and looking great. Petey definitely was a peacock, a dresser; he had a unique way of putting colors and combinations together. From the photos we had, you can tell that clothing was important to him. Kasi encouraged me to go as far as I needed to go with costumes for Don. The red velvet suit – which took four different tries – and the mesh underwear were particular favorites."
Don Cheadle sports over three dozen costume changes in Talk to Me, all designed by Phillips and her team to echo Petey's idiosyncratic approach to his life. Cheadle laughs, "All of those accoutrements – the wig, moustache, mutton chops, clothes that were tight as hell – helped me to find the character. Once I looked in the mirror, I wasn't looking at myself; I saw Petey."
"Don was my hero," states Phillips. "He allowed me to do what I needed to, and it was a joy to work with him. He wears the clothes amazingly well; he would walk right into them and become Petey. The day he was supposed to wear this jumpsuit, he said, 'Gersha, I can't…' But he did, and he strutted it!"
Cheadle admits, "It was fun to dress up and revisit those times. Now, you don't want to detract from the story, but I feel that Gersha did a great job in taking us back into that period in a way that was both believable and strong. When you looked around the set and saw the world the crew had re-created, with everyone costumed, you were like, 'Oh, okay, I know where I am.'"
Phillips adds, "There's a line that you don't want to cross. But when you're looking at one outfit alone, that's different from when it's in a room of people similarly dressed. So then it's not that far-out."
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Phillips muses that Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Dewey, "wears one suit throughout a lot of the movie. It's always crisp and pressed. Petey and Dewey are like night and day. But as their friendship progresses, you see a little bit of Petey influence Dewey.
"With Vernell, it was 'anything goes.' The outfits she wears are risqué, and sometimes almost lingerie. It was hard to find vintage fabrics, so we got some vintage dresses and re-cut them, made them shorter and opened the necklines more. For the scenes between her and Petey, we had to balance between, rather than completely match, them; one simmers down a little as the other pops out, or the reverse. For example, when he's in the red velvet suit, we put red shoes on her and gave her a red purse. Every time, Taraji was a blast to work with and to dress."
Henson says, "It was lovely. I enjoyed all the different costumes, hair, nails, and lashes I got to wear. Vernell dresses over-the-top, and with lots of colors, which works for me. Although, with the middle cut out of so many of the clothes I was wearing, I couldn't eat dessert at lunch…"
The hair department, headed by Etheline Joseph and Allison Mondesir, worked closely with Phillips' staff and had its own trailer. There was an extensive collection of wigs, including Afros and other types of hairpieces. Any wig that was used during a shooting day had to be cleaned at the end of the day and readied for the next day's shoot. This required considerable effort, given the number of extras who were assembled for some sequences.
Meeting another challenge, the filmmakers secured permission from the estate of Johnny Carson to use footage from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Although Petey ultimately did not appear with the legendary host on his iconic NBC program, in Talk to Me Don Cheadle as Petey does – dramatizing a dream that was cherished by Dewey, if not Petey.
Executive producer J. Miles Dale clarifies, "We reverse-engineer Don, as Petey, into an existing show. In the script, Johnny Carson is Dewey's hero. So that appealed to the Carson estate; they also got the message of the script, and we got a telecast to use."
Young adds, "Working from video footage and photos, we built a re-creation – with the curtain, the chair, the desk, the bandstand – of the last set that Carson had in New York City before heading off to the West Coast."
Aside from New York, the film's seven-week shoot also took the production to such notable locations as Ben's Chili Bowl (in Washington's "Black Broadway" district) and the Washington Monument. Two full days were needed to film a sequence of the rioting that took place in Washington following the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4th, 1968. In what became a defining moment in his broadcasting career, Petey went on the air that night – and stayed on.
Michael Genet remembers, "I was at my grandmother's house having dinner when the news flashed across the TV. It was already a warm night, but when the news broke, you instantly felt the temperature of the city raise a hundredfold. That night, my father and Petey did a marathon broadcast to help squash the riots and convince people to go home."
Vondie Curtis Hall reflects, "Petey was the right man to calm the rioting crowds of D.C. that night, because people knew he was one of them. He wasn't trying to tell them how to live, or preach to them. He was saying, 'This ain't it, this ain't the way to go tonight, and I don't think Dr. King would have wanted you to do this. This is our community, and if you burn it down, we're burning down our own stuff.'"
This had long been Petey's counsel to his community, especially the young. Even before Dr. King was assassinated, he had said, "If we burn things down, ain't nobody going to get hurt but us."
Genet offers, "Although a lot of property and businesses were destroyed, Dewey and Petey's efforts at WOL saved more shops – and lives. Martial law was declared the next day, and LBJ sent in troops full of white soldiers."
Sheen remembers, "D.C. looked like an armed camp after Reverend King's murder, and it could have gotten worse; who knows what would have happened if Petey hadn't gotten on the air and calmed people? He made a huge contribution."
Genet states, "Petey made us feel, and he made us think – which, by definition, makes him one of the true artists of his time. He embodied a power in radio that we haven't seen since and aren't likely to see again."
Great music is heard throughout Talk to Me, and in one instance was re-created on-camera; hundreds of extras gathered on a large field at the University of Toronto to participate in the filming of a free James Brown concert introduced by Petey. Herbert L. Rawlings, Jr., who has long performed as the late great singer in tribute and revue shows, portrays him on-screen in Talk to Me, in a sequence set just after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Rawlings proudly recalls, "Mr. Brown saw me perform once, in 1988, in Atlanta. He told me, 'Did great. Did great.' He was a legend. I loved him."
As the cameras rolled, Rawlings wowed cast and crew alike as he leapt and spun around the stage, and growled the Godfather of Soul's "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud." He offers, "James Brown's stamina was amazing, so I always have to be in shape. Filming these scenes, I felt like I was reliving 1968. It was an honor."
Don Cheadle adds, "That all felt so vibrant and alive. Herbert was amazing, doing jump-kick splits over the mike. There was a pregnant woman there, and she fainted; after receiving medical aid and food and water, she came back to the set, because she was having so much fun at the concert!"
Also having fun were local college students, who began taking photos; filming had to be stopped at least once when a 2006 cell phone got on-camera during the 1968 recreation. "Students came out of their dorms all through the night to party and dance – even though they were in the middle of their final exams," remembers J. Miles Dale. "Since they weren't in period wardrobe, we had to ask them to tuck themselves into the crowd of extras."
To keep the crowd's spirits up during filming breaks and delays, Cheadle performed his own original stand-up routines – drawing inspiration from not only the man he was portraying (who had performed stand-up comedy) but also Richard Pryor (who had died a few months prior to filming).
Michael Genet says, "The concert, along with Petey's words on-air, played a major part in getting the people to set aside their rage – for the time being, at least."
In addition to following Petey and Dewey's lives and times, Talk to Me tracks the changing currents of the country's music. "We go from Motown to Booker T. and the MGs, and Rufus Thomas, to name but a few," explains Josh McLaughlin. "It's a shift that's very important to the movie. The music is transitioning into the same vibe that the clothes and the inner city itself are moving into, which is more of an edgier, cooler scene."
Cheadle marvels, "The music from that era was so rich and lush in its orchestration and experimentation. These songs come on, and you remember where you were when you first heard them."
Gersha Phillips says, "Kasi Lemmons made discs for us with the songs she wanted. I played them at our costume fittings, and everybody would get into it and be grooving. That created the right environment. A lot of the members of my team hadn't necessarily heard this great music before, so it was a great introduction for them. I think Talk to Me will educate a lot of people about a lot of different things."
Lemmons states, "Music is a very important character in the film. While writing, I listened to Sly & The Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, and the great Motown artists.
"It was very important to my process, and I came to realize that the script was musical. It had a rhythm and a beat, and Petey has a definite movement all his own. His message was, always to be true to yourself and keep it real."
Cheadle reflects, "Combining the fashions, the music, and the way people talked about important things then, I hope Talk to Me will create a resurgence for that era – one comparable to what happened when we did Boogie Nights. I believe people are going to say, 'I want some of that. I want back in there.'
"In my opinion, the conditions are perfect for a Petey Greene right now. Petey told it like he saw it, and at a time where that was so vital. I think it still is in this country. The youth of today should stand up; they're not conditioned to think it's the natural way to respond, as they were during the time period Talk to Me depicts. But, it is the time. It is the time."