Perhaps outside Washington, D.C., few people are familiar with the story of Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr. In the mid-1960s, the former ex-con was an outspoken civil rights activist, comedian and revered disc jockey on D.C.’s WOL-AM radio station, where he worked until his death in 1984.
Greene’s rags-to-riches story fascinated director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”, “The Caveman’s Valentine”) so much that when the script was given to her to simply make revisions, she immediately wanted to head up the project of bringing the tale to the big screen.
“I was really like most people particularly here on the West Coast who had heard a bit about Petey Greene maybe briefly in the news, but weren’t too familiar with him,” said Lemmons during a recent interview in San Francisco to promote “Talk to Me,” which opened Friday.
The fact that the script was multi-layered particularly appealed to Lemmons. “Yes, the story is about Petey Greene who is played extraordinarily well by Oscar nominee Don Cheadle, but the story also has a lot of depth,” she said. “It reveals so much about this man’s character. Plus, there’s the relationship that he had with his friend Dewey Hughes — who Chiwetel Ejiofor (“American Gangster,” “Inside Man” and “Kinky Boots”) also nails in his role as the station program director. So it’s not often you see this sort of strong, male bonding and friendship. That’s what really won me over.”
That was the selling point Lemmons used to convince the powers that be to greenlight “Talk to Me.” “Getting movies made is hard for anybody,” she said, “And getting a predominately ‘black movie’ made is extremely difficult.” She thanks William Horberg at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, which financed the movie, for believing in the film as much as the people who worked on it.
Lemmons is optimistic that the film’s star power — it also features Martin Sheen as radio station owner E.G. Sonderling — and universal message of friendship and understanding will not only resonate with African Americans, but with mainstream audiences, too.
Flattered by people who already are tossing around the “O” word for Cheadle’s and Ejiofor’s performances, she laughs, also recommending one for Taraji P. Henson, whom, she says, “pours her heart into this role as Petey Greene’s girlfriend much like she did in ‘Hustle & Flow.’”
While Cheadle always was her first choice to play Petey, initially she wanted Terence Howard to play Dewey.
Now she’s OK that he wasn’t able to do the role. “To see Don and Chiwetel together on screen like this is incredible,” she said. “Every so often you get lucky and things line up for you when you do films, from getting the right casting to financing and everything. It’s not often but sometimes it all works. This was one of those times.”
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