What, praytell, does it mean to “Keep It Real”? For controversial radio man Petey Green (Don Cheadle), it was speaking “truth” over the airwaves to his “chocolate city” of Washington D.C. For his black, upwardly mobile program manager Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), it meant educating yourself and assimilating into mainstream culture. This tension between selling out and success is a defining issue for Black America: Working to overcome racism, but then being trapped by black identity. Talk to Me covers the issue comprehensively.
The plot sounds something like a black man’s Good Morning, Vietnam, but Cheadle’s Petey Green is far more complex than Williams’ Adrian Cronauer. Green isn’t trying to make’em laugh; he’s trying to speak to them and for them. Hughes wants to take P-Town nationwide, but his ambition conflicts with the source of Petey’s appeal: He’s speaking to his people, not the people. All this leads to a contentious appearance with Johnny Carson.
The movie is fraught with clichés: Hughes proves his mettle in a pool hall, Green wanders into the rioting streets after the assassination of Dr. King, only to run back into the studio to talk the city down off the ledge. What elevates the film is the tumultuous brotherhood portrayed by Cheadle and Ejiofor. Cheadle lets loose and bowls through the movie like a Chris Rock stand-up routine. The difference is that Cheadle has mastered the smaller, quieter aspects of his character, where Rock or Robin Williams would just crank it up to 11 and let it rip. Ejiofor gives Hughes a toughness, where a regular “Mr. Tibbs” (as Green calls him) would simply get swallowed up by Petey.
Ironically, it’s a white man who, perhaps, keeps it the real-est. Sure, Petey and Dewey spar over what it means to be black in America in their competing visions for Green’s career, but look at internal obstacles and instincts fought by station owner E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen). Petey and Dewey fight about “purity” and “ideals” like Tobey and Josh in “The West Wing,” but Sheen’s Sonderling has a different value. Sonderling, such an uptight white guy that he epiteths “Blue Blazes!” when Green struts into his office with a crushed velvet ghetto suit, eventually, agonizingly overcomes every urge in his soul to permanently fire Petey Green. Sonderling is always admonishing Green to “watch your language” and “be professional” when Petey’s anything but. He orders Green to apologize on air for comparing Barry Gordy to a pimp (he takes black musicians, makes them palatable for white audiences, and then watches the money roll in).
But just as he’s got a virtual SWAT team ready to haul Petey Green out of his studio, the phone lines light up. Black D.C., which at the time is most of D.C., has found the voice it’s been looking for. Petey Green stands for everything E.G. Sonderling stands against: Questionable language, speaking truth to money and power, bringing the language of confrontation to the airwaves. But E.G. sees the phone lines light up, then looks at Petey behind the mic, and Sheen allows Sonderling a sigh and eye roll, as if he’s calculating the sponsor dollars. Petey gets the gig. And E.G. Sonderling keeps it real.