Forty years ago a not-so-quiet revolution began on the radio airwaves of Washington D.C., fueled by an outspoken talk show host named Petey Greene. A new movie based on his story stars Oscar-nominee Don Cheadle; and Alan Silverman has a look at Talk To Me.
By the 1960's, Petey Greene had sunk about as low as he could. Discharged from the Army for drug abuse, he turned to crime ...but wasn't very good at it. During his prison term for armed robbery he discovered that what he could do really well was talk when he fast-talked his way into a job as the prison disc jockey. When Petey got out of jail he headed right for one of the few stations in town, back then, that broadcast to the Capital city's growing black community.
The only black executive at station WOL, the well-educated Dewey Hughes, became Petey Greene's champion. He was convinced that Petey's 'street smarts' would attract listeners.
It was the kind of straight talk, occasionally peppered with profanity, that had not been heard on the air before; and Don Cheadle, who stars as Petey Greene, says the audience recognized the truth in his broadcasts.
"I think he was somebody who understood the streets and he understood how to cut through all of the rhetoric and touch the raw nerve of what was happening ...and talk to people at that level because he had experienced it and he came through it. I think he felt that he represented the voice for people who had no voice and a part of society that an upper echelon didn't want to give credence to and didn't want to recognize.
"I just think he spoke from his chest," adds Cheadle. "He said 'this is what I think, this is what I feel' and people found themselves hearing that voice and finding it refreshing. 'Here's somebody who is just putting it out there.' I think people wanted to vicariously live through him. You listen to him and think 'I wish I could just walk into a room and say that and deal with whatever comes.' Petey, for better or worse, was that kind of a person."
Martin Sheen is one of the few cast members in Talk To Me old enough to have experienced the 1960's as an adult.
"It awakened a lot of memories and emotions from that period that were being expressed in the film, so I was very happy to be asked to do it," Sheen says.
It was typical in those days for there to be white ownership of radio stations and other media aimed at the black audience. Sheen plays the manager of station WOL who reluctantly hires Petey Greene.
"He was from the ghetto. He had a prison background. He was addicted. He didn't hide anything," notes Sheen. "He didn't brag about it. He just said 'these are my wounds. This is how I got them. I accept responsibility for them. I know a lot of you out there have wounds. We can identify with each other. We all have a lot of work to do. Let's start talking.' I think that kind of energy and passion is what caused such a stir and ignited such a response.
As portrayed in the film, Petey Greene's connection with the audience had a much-needed calming effect during the 1968 riots in Washington after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. That actually happened, but Don Cheadle acknowledges some parts of Talk To Me are fiction, inspired by the true story.
"When you have these stories that are based on somebody's life, you're trying to condense 20 years of an experience into an hour and a half, you know there are going to be omissions and characters that are composites of people (and) that you don't have the time to tell the whole story; but you still want to track the truth," says Cheadle. "A lot of times people get up in arms because certain facts aren't necessarily as they occurred or are changed, embellished, diminished - whatever they are - but I think everybody knows that you're taking poetic license."
Petey Greene went on to have TV show and became a leading media personality. When he died of cancer in 1984, thousands of Washingtonians lined the streets to pay their respects. Talk To Me also features English-born actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Petey Greene's manager and friend Dewey Hughes. Taraji P. Henson plays the strong-willed woman in the radio host's life. The film is directed by Kasi Lemmons.