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'Talk to Me': The Mouth That Roared in '60s D.C.

When program director Dewey Hughes brings an ex-convict to his radio station to work as a new DJ, he withholds the guy's identity until almost airtime. The station's owner is not pleased — and sure enough, "Petey" Greene turns out to be enough of a loose cannon that once he's on the air, he gets himself fired almost immediately.

But with the doors to the studio locked, Greene makes one last pitch to his audience.

"Gimme a call — if you disagree, tell me like a man," he tells listeners. "I'm tired of hearing fools complaining in barber chairs and beauty shops. Let your opinion out!"

The pitch produces results: The phone lines are so jammed that station execs can't even call the police to try to remove Greene — and once they realize that, of course, they no longer want to.

Greene would spend more than a decade at WOL, perpetually startling the D.C. establishment. And though his patter was tame compared to that of today's shock jocks, actor Don Cheadle has a way of making it sound startling all over again.

Director Kasi Lemmons makes the early part of Talk to Me so funny that you'd swear the film was a flat-out comedy. But just as slapstick starts veering toward farce, a real-life tragedy shatters the world of the film: Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, and the riots that follow ravage whole swaths of downtown D.C.

As Greene realizes that he has the credibility in the community to help quiet the violence, Talk to Me gains considerable resonance — at which point it will occur to you that the film has, from its beginning, been about relationships, especially the friendship that develops between its outspoken ex-con and Hughes, the straitlaced company man (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) who gave him a place to use his voice.

Greene's later career would be largely anticlimactic — a fact that's echoed in the film, which also becomes less vital in its final reel. But in its wrenching shift from farce to tragedy, and its evocation of the bridge offered by friendship, Talk to Me tells it, and keeps on tellin' it, much as 'Petey' Greene would have.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.