Talk to Me

Kasi Lemmons and Taraji P. Henson on the set of Talk to Me

I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun in a cinema. Talk to Me has to be one of my favourite films of the year. I’ve always liked Don Cheadle and I’ve been a big fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor since Dirty Pretty Things. Director Kasi Lemmons I knew from that wonderful melodrama Eve’s Bayou so I was looking forward to Talk to Me — I just didn’t expect it to be so knock-out.

The structure of the film is that of the classic show-business biopic, although the action is compressed into the period 1966-72 with a brief coda ten years later. Many critics are sniffy about biopics, but if I’m interested in the star/personality, I can live with a conventional story arc. The difference here is that by starting in the mid 1960s, we don’t learn anything immediately about the early lives of the two central characters, Petey Greene and Dewey Hughes. Instead the narrative has to contrive ways of getting the two to tell each other about their backgrounds. One of the best examples of this is the terrific pool game in which Hughes/Ejiofor turns the tables on Greene/Cheadle.

Petey Greene was a radio star in Washington DC who was famous for ‘keeping it real’ and building up a large African-American audience during the period of Civil Rights triumphs leading into the Black Power period (when the backlash was felt). The film can thus draw on music, humour and politics as well as melodrama in terms of personal relationships. Perhaps the movie won’t be such an emotional experience for younger audiences, but I found the sequences dealing with the assassination of Martin Luther King enormously affecting. The music throughout was terrific (the great Terence Blanchard creating the score) but when Cheadle played Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come I was destroyed.

At heart, the movie is a male melodrama and deals with the emotional relationship between the two male characters. In a central dialogue exchange they both assert that they need each other — Dewey can do the things Petey can’t and Petey can say the things Dewey can’t. The two men symbolise the different approaches by African-American men towards ‘getting on’ and preserving a sense of clear personal identity — ‘keeping it real’. The whole film hinges on the ability of the two actors to represent the nuances as well as the dramatic emotional highs and lows of this relationship. In a way, I think that Cheadle has the slightly easier task. He has to represent a fast-talking ‘larger than life’ character. He does this brilliantly but we have seen him do it before. On the other hand, Ejiofor has a much less defined character — in the sense that Dewey has to be represented as ‘buttoned-up’ and conservative. But the character changes over the course of the narrative. Ejiofor actually has more to do to get this across, even if the performance has to be ‘smaller’ than Cheadle’s. I confess that I watched Ejiofor so closely that I sometimes thought I could see him changing gear. I had a similar feeling watching Samantha Morton, another actor I rate very highly, in the marvellous Control. I decided then that my ‘gaze’ was far too focused on the one character and that in the context of the narrative, the performance worked very well. I think the same about Ejiofor as Dewey (and many respected critics have praised Ejiofor for the role). What certainly worked well was the changing facial hair and head hair of the characters. Ejiofor in full beard at the end of the film was significantly different from the rather preppy young man at the beginning.

Costume as well as hair was terrific and gave me lots of pleasure as well as neatly marking the transition through the late 1960s into the 1970s. It also enhanced the very big performance by Taraji P. Henson which had a section of the audience behind me in full appreciative voice. I guess some might question the portrayal of the woman who formed the third point of a triangle with Petey and Dewey as quite so ‘out there’ in a film directed by a woman. However, I think Kasi Lemmons handled the male relationship very well and the women in the narrative are necessarily in the background — a consequence of sticking close to the facts in a biopic perhaps. There were some great performances from players in the minor roles, especially Martin Sheen as the studio boss and his secretary/receptionist Freda played by Alison Sealy-Smith who said more with a raised eyebrow than many actors manage with several lines of dialogue. Some critics have suggested that the early comic scenes in the radio station are very different in tone to some of the more dramatic scenes that come later. Again, it is demanded by the biopic structure and it works for me. Thinking about those scenes, I’m reminded of the wonderful ensemble playing in Robert Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune.

I’m looking forward to watching the film again on DVD — I understand that on the US DVD there are some interesting deleted scenes. Overall a great film — and another triumph for the Canadian film industry since the studio work was all filmed in Toronto as far as I could work out.

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