Directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou), Talk to Me is the story of radio personality Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene (Don Cheadle), an ex-con and former drug addict-turned-political activist and comedy personality. An interesting story in himself, Greene is a loud-mouthed prophet, spitting out jive and derogating politicians and bigwig personalities with sharp-tongued wit. We also meet his manager, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who plays it straight, modeling his life after Johnny Carson. Their conflicting styles set up the film's dynamic as the relationship between Greene and Hughes is used to dramatize race relations in America during the '60s.
Through a pastiche of psychedelic patterns, 'fros and good ol' soul music (Sam Cooke and James Brown), Lemmons paints a vivid picture of the African-American community in the 1960s. Greene stands smack dab in the middle with flamboyant girlfriend Vernell (Taraji P. Henson of Hustle and Flow) at his side. The acerbic environment of a segregated Washington comes neatly to a head in the film's climax, when the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. starts an apocalyptic riot in the streets of D.C. But while this scene might hold the most poetic license, it is also signifies the formulaic feeling of the film.
This is a film that wraps itself in parallels: Hughes vs. Greene, dreams vs. fears, black vs. white. Yet, the inevitable biopic arc—the rise-and-fall effect and failure versus success parallel—is Talk to Me's downfall. Worse, the added romanticism and neat repackaging of Green's career eclipses the man himself. The film is full of a glossy sentimentality that Greene would never have credited as true-to-life. Still, with worthy performances by the leads, it's easy to get swept away in the sugary sounds of the Supremes and ride the wave of nostalgia without remembering Greene's true ethic of keepin' it real.