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 Id never before or since heard from her. When I asked her what happened, I thought she said the kings 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 arent 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. Its hard to imagine being affected like that by anything these days– I cant imagine a comparison. It felt like the end of the world.”
MERIN: Dr. Kings death seems an important nexus for you. What did the script say to you that made you want to make this film?
LEMMONS: Im glad you asked me that– most people ask what Im trying to say, which I cant 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 werent 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. Im scared, too, sometimes– of being taken out of context. I was struggling. I was very attracted to Peteys voice, to the spontaneity of it. I needed Peteys voice, like (station manager) Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) needed Peteys voice. Its 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 havent 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 didnt know Petey on the national level. There might be spontaneous voices out there on the local level. But radios changed– stations are owned by conglomerates, not by one halfway cool white guy (played by Martin Sheen) whos running the show his own way. Thats rough on spontaneity.
MERIN: Do you hope todays 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. Its terrifying now, too, but we feel impotent– things are beyond our control, too big, too grand, too over our heads. Were specks. If audiences get the idea that, yeah, they can make a difference– their voices can make a difference– Id 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. Thats what interests me– people who are neither evil nor spotlessly clean. Gray areas of humanity and relationships, crossing lines– thats what Im 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 Eves Bayou, every shots framed like a painting. Talk to Me has a more fluid style– Peteys 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 isnt a presented as a biopic– but we wanted to represent those very volatile and vibrant times accurately.