Dir: Kasi Lemons. US. 2007. 115mins.
A tasty performance by Don Cheadle and a nice evocation of late-sixties black America are the heart and soul of Talk To Me, director Kasi Lemmons' enjoyable period drama about real-life Washington DC deejay-activist Petey Greene Jr. The Sidney Kimmel Entertainment production could prove a profitable crowd-pleaser among black US audiences and might also do some mainstream business as summer season counter-programming. International prospects, though, are probably more limited.
US distributor Focus Features will get a publicity boost from the film's screening this week as opening night attraction at Film Independent's Los Angeles Film Festival. A limited domestic theatrical opening follows on July 13 and though Cheadle is in danger of being over-exposed - this month's Ocean's Thirteen was his third US release of the year - his performance should still be a draw.
Distributors elsewhere that have licensed the film from Kimmel International will have to work hard to counter the tendency for black-themed US films to under-perform in many international markets.
With a screenplay by Michael Genet (who co-wrote She Hate Me and is the son of Talk To Me's other main character) and Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood), the film starts off like a rousing but conventional sports or showbiz biopic.
Cheadle's colourful fast-talker Petey is a prison deejay who, when he's released, goes to buttoned-down radio station programme director Dewey Hughes (Kinky Boots' Chiwetel Ejiofor in another strong performance) for a job.
After a shaky start, Petey's blend of streetwise humour and social commentary begins to pull an audience and Dewey hatches plans to take his protege to the top of the (white-dominated) entertainment business.
Underlying Petey's rise as a local radio and then TV star is the evolution of his relationship with Dewey. The two characters represent (sometimes a tad too obviously) different takes on racial pride - Dewey goes for neat suits and Johnny Carson as a role model, while Petey prefers eye-popping street duds and James Brown - and, like the civil rights movement of the time, their relationship is usually a struggle.
The film's third act is more downbeat and less engaging. Though it takes Dewey a long time to catch on, Petey becomes disillusioned with his growing fame and eventually commits career suicide - while recommitting to his core audience and philosophy - on the stage of Johnny Carson's national TV talk show.
Dewey picks up the pieces and goes on with his career but Petey (whose real-life model died in 1984) goes into a decline, with only his irrepressible and loyal girlfriend Vernell (Taraji P Henson, from Hustle & Flow) for support.
Lemmons (best known for 1997 indie hit Eve's Bayou) make the story's cultural and social backdrop work on several levels. Early on it's simply a lot of fun, with Petey and Vernell sporting some spectacular Afros and outlandish clothes and the action being punctuated by pop and soul hits from the likes of James Brown, Otis Redding and Sly & The Family Stone. A score by jazz musician Terence Blanchard supplements the period music.
Later, the backdrop provides a more serious context as Petey and his radio co-workers mourn the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and help quell the Washington DC riots that followed the tragedy by staying on air to appeal for calm.
Though the film has a far from lavish look - locations are used sparingly and the riot scene was clearly done on a budget - it's given a bit of extra style by the work of cinematographer Stephane Fontaine, the French Cesar-winner (for The Beat That My Heart Skipped) who makes his US debut on the project.
Sidney Kimmel Entertainment
Mark Gordon Company
J Miles Dale
Warren Alan Young
Terilyn A Shropshire
Cedric The Entertainer
Taraji P Henson
Vondie Curtis Hall