Kasi Lemmons talks “Talk To Me” with Jennifer Merin

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Talk to Me is based on the life story of Petey Greene (Don Cheadle), a streetwise ex-con who hustled his way into a DJ gig at a DC radio station, and quickly became the influential tell-it-like-it-is voice of the black community during the 1960s, especially when riots erupted following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, The Caveman’s Valentine), just a child when Dr. King was killed, was profoundly effected by the event.

“I remember hearing this horrible sound coming from my mother, terrifying screams, sounds I‘d never before or since heard from her. When I asked her what happened, I thought she said ‘the king’s dead.’ It took me a while to understand what she meant. I talked about this with the actors, some of whom are younger than I am, some aren’t African-Americans. And we did research– you know, in cities across the country, people dropped dead when they heard the news, or fell to their knees, screaming ‘why not me, God, why not me?’ We talked about that, and about what life was like at that time,” says Lemmons. “It’s hard to imagine being affected like that by anything these days– I can’t imagine a comparison. It felt like the end of the world.”

MERIN: Dr. King’s death seems an important nexus for you. What did the script say to you that made you want to make this film?

LEMMONS: I’m glad you asked me that– most people ask what I’m trying to say, which I can’t quite answer. It said a lot of things– one is about freedom of expression, which I was struggling with. My passion for the project deepened around the beginning of the Iraq war.

I was pissed off about it, wondering why people weren’t jumping up and down, screaming. I felt they were being very cautious. There was this fear of words– almost as though they were afraid the government was listening. They were too terrified to say anything. I understand that. I‘m scared, too, sometimes– of being taken out of context. I was struggling. I was very attracted to Petey‘s voice, to the spontaneity of it. I needed Petey’s voice, like (station manager) Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) needed Petey’s voice. It’s loud. It says ‘listen to this.‘

The script also says something about friendship, something I grapple with, which is the choice of loving somebody just as they are and not trying to change them– resisting that inner urge that says, “Oh, I love you so much, let me transform you into what I think you should be.”

The friendship between Petey and Dewey is a Platonic love affair. I haven’t seen this kind of relationship between two black men shown on screen before, not with the same depth. It was interesting to explore. It has to do with freedom of expression, too– the bravery of spontaneous expression in friendship.

MERIN: Do we have similarly spontaneous voices now?

LEMMONS: The thing is, we didn’t know Petey on the national level. There might be spontaneous voices out there on the local level. But radio’s changed– stations are owned by conglomerates, not by one halfway cool white guy (played by Martin Sheen) who’s running the show his own way. That’s rough on spontaneity.

MERIN: Do you hope today’s cautious people might see Petey as an example they might follow?

LEMMONS: Or to remind them, at least, that not too long ago that kind of courage was called forth. It was a devastating time, but also a time when revolution might have been possible– certainly the government was afraid there was going to be a revolution. That time was unsettled, terrifying and very fertile. It’s terrifying now, too, but we feel impotent– things are beyond our control, too big, too grand, too over our heads. We’re specks. If audiences get the idea that, yeah, they can make a difference– their voices can make a difference– I’d like them to come away with that.

MERIN: How does “Talk to Me” fit into the through line of your work?

LEMMONS: All my films are character-driven, and I see that continuing. That’s what interests me– people who are neither evil nor spotlessly clean. Gray areas of humanity and relationships, crossing lines– that’s what I’m very attracted to in my work, things that bleed into other things. Reality bleeds into imagination, borders separating the metaphysical get blurry, there are crossovers. In “Talk to Me,” the boundaries are about friendship.

Cinematically, my films are deliberately quite different. In “Eve’s Bayou,” every shot’s framed like a painting. “Talk to Me” has a more fluid style– Petey’s camera flows with him. And, technically, “Talk to Me” presented the challenge of matching footage we shot to archival footage from “The Tonight Show” and actual news footage. That involved a different kind of crossing over of elements. “Talk to Me“ isn‘t a presented as a biopic– but we wanted to represent those very volatile and vibrant times accurately.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).