When, over 15 years after Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene had died, Pelagius Films producer Joe Fries heard Petey's story from his friend Dewey Hughes, who was Petey's longtime creative partner, Fries "saw it as a dream project." Producer Mark Gordon agreed, and took the project out as a pitch with Fries. The idea did not sell - but the project moved forward as a movie just the same.
For, as Fries explains, "I felt so passionately about this story that I contacted screenwriter Michael Genet, who is Dewey Hughes' son - with no guarantee of a home for the project."
Genet remembers, "Joe Fries and [executive producer] Joey Rappa called and told me they wanted to do a movie about Petey and Dewey. As Joe started talking through the story with me, it all came rushing back like a raging river because I had lived it; my father and his best friend were two powerful brothers - and the talk of our town, D.C.
"I got together with Dewey and we relived his days with Petey; all the ups and downs, and trials and triumphs."
A few years later, the script struck a chord with producer Josh McLaughlin, who had since joined the Mark Gordon Company. He notes, "Joe Fries is from D.C., and so am I. In the late '60s and early '70s, when Petey Greene had hit his stride, that city was one of the coolest places in the world to be. Hearing Petey's name, I remembered that there was a community center office dedicated to him.
"I found it was very difficult, though, to remember a non-'blaxploitation' movie about an urban city in the late '60s/early '70s. The three Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby movies, beginning with Uptown Saturday Night, did depict that period, and of course there was that great documentary/concert film Wattstax. There were also several civil rights pictures, but those were Southern-oriented. Those are all good films, but the 'black is beautiful' era in a world of change has largely gone unexplored. Petey's story, about speaking your mind, was a window into there."
Genet remarks, "When I was writing the script, I knew I had to stay true to the voices of these two men. Not to have done so would have been to dishonor them both. There's cool that you either have or you don't, and Dewey had it. The
same work ethic he instilled in Petey, he instilled in me; paying one's dues not only in this business but in life.
"And Petey - well, Petey was a sharp dresser and his Afro was always perfect, with never a strand out of place. But he was stone cold street, with a voice to match. Whenever he opened his mouth and spoke, I would jump. As funny as he was, even as a boy I could hear the pain in his voice. Listening to him on the radio, I didn't always understand what he was speaking about. But I couldn't change that dial; he had me - and an entire city - mesmerized and hypnotized."
At the core of the film is the real-life relationship between Petey Greene and Dewey Hughes. McLaughlin says, "Their friendship is the foundation of Talk to Me. What eventually caused a rift between these two - who were like brothers during turbulent times for this country - is that Dewey assumed Petey wanted what he wanted for him."
Genet reflects, "What I found in telling their story was that there is a love shared between black men that we almost never hear tell of. You won't find it defined in any text books or dictionaries, yet it exists."
McLaughlin adds, "The film is a drama, but with a lot of humor, and that's also their relationship; with two completely different people relating, you're going to have conflict but you're also going to find humor."
Gordon comments, "If you elicit humor from the characters, who have been established as real human beings, then you can find the truth in the moments between them. It's one reason I fell in love with this story."
Screenwriter Rick Famuyiwa did as well, albeit initially from a different perspective. He reports, "What drew me in first was Petey. He was an iconoclast, and a torchbearer of the oral tradition that is an integral part of African-American culture. To me, he represented a bridge between the orators of the civil rights movement and the orators of today, hip-hop musicians. Like a rapper, he was the voice of people who didn't have a say. What he had to say wasn't always what people wanted to hear - both inside the community and out - but it represented a truth he felt had to be expressed. I felt he could be contemporary and relatable to today's hip-hop-reared generation.
"If Petey was the spark that piqued my interest, then Dewey was the fire that kept me warm. He could see the best in Petey and, in a larger sense, the best in all of us. Each of these men needed what the other had in order to succeed, and I wanted to focus not only on that part of their relationship but also on how they embodied an ongoing conversation in the African-American community - about what is considered 'keeping it real.' Dewey - who came from the same streets
and neighborhoods as Petey did - was as real as Petey, but chose to fight inside the system, so that artists like Petey could find success in the mainstream."
With Famuyiwa working on the script, Talk to Me went back into active development at the Mark Gordon Company. Another notable independent film producer, Sidney Kimmel, also saw the project's potential. "To me," he says, "Petey's story was moving and original." Sidney Kimmel Entertainment came on board to join the Mark Gordon Company and Pelagius Films in backing the film's development through studio turnaround as well as a key casting issue.
One actor who remained interested through the years of development was Don Cheadle, who would ultimately be an executive producer on the film in addition to starring in it. Cheadle had sparked to the project because, he explains, "You sweat it out for the ones that are close to your heart. This just seemed to me to be an honest depiction of a man who was a real live wire and was definitely his own person. Petey wasn't afraid to court controversy, or to be on the front lines of the issues; civil rights, free speech, national government, local government, riots…His story is relevant today because very few people are willing to stand up and point out what, in my estimation, are clear inadequacies. Our government is not necessarily behaving in a way that's for most of the people. We just don't have someone who stood out the way Petey did on WOL and on television.
"Talk to Me went through many, many different permutations. With our budget, nobody was going to get rich; everyone did this movie because they loved the story and wanted to be part of telling it. I first heard about it through a friend of mine, [the late filmmaker] Ted Demme. Finally, Kasi Lemmons got the material, and spent so much time with it so that the vision - her vision - became really clear."
Kasi Lemmons says, "You don't have to be a Washingtonian, or black, to appreciate someone who was this dynamic. Here was a man who was the voice of his community, and who said things so many of us would like to say. Petey wasn't always right, but he meant what he said. What I also saw was the potential for this biopic to evolve into something enormously entertaining and accessible.
"Petey was a real person, but as a filmmaker coming to him fresh I didn't want to feel constrained by what-happened-when. What I did want was to stay true to the emotional authenticity of the characters."
Lemmons met with Dewey Hughes, who signed on as consultant to the now-coalescing project, which Focus Features - the final piece of the production puzzle - joined.
McLaughlin notes. "Dewey was a resource we constantly called upon. We would go to him and ask, 'What happened then? What was it like?' He was there, and he would tell us all about it."
Lemmons remembers, "The material began to - no pun intended - talk to me, and really loudly, too. I fell in love with the story and the characters, especially the contrast between these two friends. As a story about friendship, it's universal. Petey and Dewey, like many men, shy away from revealing their vulnerabilities. It didn't mean that they weren't close; it meant that they had trouble expressing themselves to each other. Vernell was also very special to me, because she embodies strong women from our history that we don't see depicted often enough."
McLaughlin notes that, during script meetings, Kasi "didn't talk about why it was an important movie to do; she wanted to talk about what it was going to feel like - hip and relevant. We all recommended that Talk to Me needed to be a really cool place to spend a couple of hours, and Kasi already had gotten that.
"It just seemed like the logical next step; she finally said, 'Would you sit down with me about it, as a director?' And it was like, let's go!"
Gordon comments, "The job of a producer is to make sure that everyone on a picture is making the same movie. With Kasi, we knew that would be the case."
Lemmons reflects, "In seeking to direct Talk to Me, I was thinking about how to realize that time period with all the color and the activism. Right now, we are living in an age where people are afraid to speak for fear of being labeled unpatriotic, anti-American, racist, sexist, whatever…It was bracing to be going back to a place where someone like Petey said what people were feeling and gave them a voice.
"I wanted to make it as an uplifting but funky and unconventional film. If I made it into a slick comedy, that would be doing Petey and the material a disservice. It needed to be gritty, musical, and authentic to the period."
Lemmons adds, "Petey Greene is a very different kind of role for Don Cheadle, and he's wonderful as Petey."
Cheadle points out, "When making a movie about a real character - and I've made several - I always refer to the script. It's your Bible. Yes, you do your research and try to understand who the person you're playing is. But you're trying to find the truth in the story that you're trying to tell.
"Every script has to tell its story in 110-116 pages. The Talk to Me script is well-constructed and depicts Petey in the totality of who he was; not necessarily a heroic figure, or a tragic one, but as a man who had a lot of failings and a lot of successes and who didn't soft-pedal anything. I don't believe he had a lot of 'woulda, coulda, shoulda.' He wasn't shy, and he had his demons to deal with, too. So this is not 'The Petey Greene Story.'"
The actor adds, "Dewey Hughes realized that Petey was raw talent, a 'voice of the people.' Dewey had gone through a lot of manicuring to prepare for the position he had gotten to. He appreciated that Petey could get away with saying things and doing things that Dewey might have felt strongly about, but that his position dictated he be more politic about.
"When I met with Dewey Hughes, he was very honest about how Petey didn't necessarily want what he wanted. He said, 'I was trying to do things for Petey that he wasn't necessarily comfortable with, or interested in exploring.'"
At his own expense, Chiwetel Ejiofor traveled to Los Angeles from the U.K. to meet about playing Dewey Hughes and to read on film with Don Cheadle. "They were magic together," remembers Lemmons. "It was instantly apparent that they had great chemistry. Everyone saw what our movie could now be, exploring the bond between these two men, with these two actors."
Ejiofor comments, "The script read as dramatic and comedic, and quite detailed about the friendship and the development of these two characters. Then there were these extraordinary scenes interweaving historical events. So I very much wanted to collaborate with Don and Kasi and make this movie."
Taraji P. Henson also had a number of reasons for wanting to be part of Talk to Me. "I'm from Washington D.C., and the '60s was the time to be alive. So this was a chance for me to relive the period in the city without having being there," she notes. "Aside from my hometown, I'm a huge fan of Kasi and Don's work. It was a chance to work with the best. Vernell jumped off the page for me; some people might look at her and think she's a bit much, but this woman who is true to who she really is and who is comfortable in her skin. And that's a great place to be.
"Whatever Petey's feeling, whatever he's thinking, he'll say it. 'P.C.' for him is 'Petey Correct.' She knows he can be self-destructive, so it takes a woman like Vernell to keep Petey on his game; she's his backbone, and his pep team. She's vested in him, so it has to work!"
Cheadle laughs, "They're bananas together. But Vernell is there for her man - come hell or high water. So it's grounding for them both, too."
Mike Epps signed on to play Milo, Dewey's estranged brother and Petey's fellow prison inmate. Epps says, "Dewey is ashamed of his brother's situation. Milo would prefer Dewey to love him unconditionally, no matter what situation he's in; he doesn't have the opportunities that Dewey does. What he does have is love and strength for Dewey."
Casting for Petey's colleagues at WOL was equally important because, as Cheadle notes, "The station was ahead of its time, and was a precursor to a lot of the modern stations we have today. There's several characters in there, bouncing off of each other."
Genet, who himself worked and was on-air at the station years later, remembers, "As a boy, whenever I visited the station, there was always a frenetic energy that was present - which I loved."
To play the flamboyant old-school deejay Nighthawk ("takin' you into the night grooves on the big O-L"), the project needed an actor who could credibly wear his coat as a cape; have wine and candles in the studio; have two Dalmatians as regular companions; and speak in a deep, sensuous voice that would lead female listeners to send him ladies' wear along with their photos. Lemmons laughs, "Well, that could only be Cedric The Entertainer, right? He had the presence and the perfect tonal quality we needed."
Cedric reveals, "This character isn't like the usual comical ones I play. As a former late-night college deejay, I can easily identify with Nighthawk. When you're in a smaller station and have a uniquely smooth voice, you'll use it to beguile all the women. Nighthawk has a swagger and a certain degree of braggadocio.
"Nighthawk was the deejay name of a man named Bob Terry. I didn't listen to tapes of him because I wanted to define the character myself, and Kasi agreed. So I applied myself to being Nighthawk the persona, not Bob the person."
For Cedric, the characterization came together both from inside and out. He notes, "I tried a few different voices, and we went with smooth and slow. The costume department did a great job; I added the glasses with the big frames for his slightly more cosmopolitan look. If I had an idea, I would talk to Kasi about it. As a director, she knows what she wants out of her film, and out of the story she is trying to tell.
"Now, we all know Don Cheadle as an amazing actor in serious movies, but working with him on Talk to Me, I found out that he's also very witty - and fast!"
Vondie Curtis Hall was asked by Lemmons, who is his real-life wife, to read the script, and signed on to play WOL deejay Sunny Jim. He offers, "It's something different for Kasi to bring her sensibility to; a period piece with a lot of testosterone. I thought it was an incredible script that showed the fascinating journey of a guy who got a second chance, and became inspirational. Those stories appeal to me as an actor.
"Dewey Hughes gave me the rundown on Sunny Jim Kelsey, 'the man with the plan' who came up through the ranks and later became the first black program manager at a major radio station. He was one of the biggest deejays in New York and then even more so in D.C. He was very conservative and religious, and in many ways felt that Petey was not a respectable person to be representing black people on the radio. But ultimately, Sunny Jim became one of Petey's ardent fans and supporters, and a close friend."
As encouraged by Lemmons, Hall "listened to some tapes, then tried to find my own way of playing Sunny Jim without doing an impersonation. His wardrobe did always have some 'sunny' - some yellow - in it. And, yes, he really did have a horn he used on-air, named Widget - which was probably a little much for the morning…
"To be working as an actor again with this crowd was a pleasure. Kasi has a great eye, and a clear knowledge of the script and every nuance and character motivation in it. On the set, she knows when she has it in a scene, and when she doesn't have it; 'No, try this," or 'He doesn't do that.' She'll talk to you about it until you can both come to a consensus. I think actors respond to that; she's an actor's director."
Cheadle remarks, "I've made movies with directors who don't know what they want. That was never the case with Kasi; she knew exactly what she wanted. Yet she was still able to be collaborative and flexible, and hear other ideas and perspectives."
Henson clarifies, "Kasi's thing is, as long as she can believe what you're doing and it's within the story and not taking away from the script, she's totally open to it. If it's not working, she'll let you know about it."
Cheadle adds, "Talk to Me is so much about two men bonding and dealing with a power structure, and with who they are and who they are with each other. So it was interesting to have a woman directing Chiwetel and myself, because often she would have a perspective that we didn't have.
"I loved acting with Chiwetel. I had met him a couple of years before, in Africa when we were filming Hotel Rwanda, because he's a friend of [fellow Hotel Rwanda Academy Award nominee] Sophie Okonedo's; they had done Dirty Pretty Things together. Our scenes in Talk to Me wouldn't have worked as well if I didn't dig the dude playing opposite me - and I've seen that happen. But Chiwetel is a great actor, and is going to go a long way in this business. Also, he does a much better American accent than I do a British one!"
Ejiofor had the luxury of speaking with Dewey Hughes to get firsthand information from the man he was to portray on-screen. The U.K. actor says, "I wanted to find out what the feeling was on the streets of Washington at the time - what with riots, protests, the Vietnam War…People got galvanized through different aspects of Washington's social and political life. Petey and Dewey found themselves at the heart of what was happening in their city."
Epps had a different kind of direct insight to his role. He matter-of-factly states, "I know Milo ten times, a hundred times. I was incarcerated back when I was a teenager, so I know the feeling of being in jail; you feel the lowest you ever have."
D.C. native Henson spoke to friends and relatives who well remembered Petey and his influence on the people of "Chocolate City" - a term he had helped to popularize in the early 1970s - and also watched documentaries. She reflects, "I learned things on this movie that I didn't learn when I was in school; it was another history lesson. Those were heavy times; we needed someone to speak up and say the things that people on the street were saying but could only hear amongst themselves. Petey put it out there for everyone to hear. It was 'P-Town,' meaning, 'Petey's Town.'
"When I invited my friend and my cousin to the set and they heard Don as Petey, the reaction was, 'He sounds just like him.'"
Cheadle says, "I did have audio clips - speeches and recordings - of Petey to study. I tried to pick up his vocal patterns. But, you know, Petey's speaking voice is very unique; at best, I've approximated it. Although sometimes I myself would be speaking about issues - and Petey's voice would start coming through."
Fries notes, "The late '60s and '70s were a time when activists agitated for change. Dewey chose to work quietly for change within the system, while Petey challenged the system as loudly and as often as he could."
Ejiofor muses, "Dewey appears to be a complete conformist. Yet, when he becomes program director, his principal objective is to promote black culture and the aspirations, hopes, and ideals of black people. Petey recognizes that Dewey is doing all this, which is why they become such close friends. Although they have very different methods, their shared goal is to remove the invisibility blanket from the black working class."
Cheadle adds, "If Petey Greene were around today, he would have years and years of material to talk about. The conditions are perfect for him right now."
Martin Sheen was approached to play WOL station owner E.G. Sonderling. Read more
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