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Movie Review

Cheadle airs it all out as voice of the street in compelling 'Talk'

In "Talk to Me ," Don Cheadle plays a scrappy little explosion by the name of Petey Greene , and every moment he's hot-wired with the joy of running his mouth. Greene (real name Ralph Waldo Greene ) was a disc jockey and activist in Washington, D.C., starting in the mid-1960s, hosting a morning show beloved by the black community and feared by the FCC. He had a local TV show, too; you can find a clip on YouTube, and it's outrageous.

Before that, he was in prison. The movie, which has been directed by Kasi Lemmons ("Eve's Bayou ") is smart, conflicted, and immensely entertaining, and it's about that moment in African - American culture when the street voice became the only one saying anything close to the truth. "Wake up, goddammit!" was Petey's sign-on of choice decades before Spike Lee shouted sim ilar sentiments from the opening frames of "Do the Right Thing ."

Cheadle's character is only half of "Talk to Me," though. On the other side of the glass is Petey's producer, WOL program director Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor ), who has made every compromise his star has rejected. A kid from the projects who put himself through school, Hughes wears a suit, speaks crisply, and is determined to bring his people through the front door of the white-owned media.

Petey just looks at this guy and cackles. Actually, he scorns Dewey as "nothing but another white boy with a tan," "Mr. Tibbs," and several things not suitable for a family paper. Yet the two men are joined by a shared sense of mission. "I guess I need you to say the things I'm afraid to say," says Dewey, "and you need me to do the things you're afraid to do."

If that line sounds didactic (and it is), know that it comes at the end of a bar room pool game that's one of the most exhilarating movie sequences of the year, a scene so beautifully written, staged, played, and edited that you sit there in the dark with a fool grin on your face. The newly paroled Petey is playing the producer for a chance to get on the air -- he was a hit with the convicts as a prison DJ -- but they're actually competing to see who's the real black man. The scene ends with a satisfying bang, upending our assumptions about both characters.

The first half of "Talk to Me" is similarly alive with filmmaking skill and the rush of taking chances. The delight is infectious, buoyed by a soundtrack of irresistible soul classics that comment tartly on the narrative and by a cast that just won't quit. Cedric the Entertainer has a few choice scenes as a fellow DJ called The Nighthawk , whose melted-butter tones, like Barry White's , are at odds with his bulk. Martin Sheen turns the station owner into a figure of perplexed and intelligent decency.

Especially wonderful is Taraji P. Henson as Petey's longtime girlfriend Vernell , a vision in Foxy Brown period clothes with a pixie smile, lollipop legs, and a filthy mouth. After "Hustle & Flow ," this is at least the second movie Henson has stolen, and will Hollywood please do something about it?

After a while, "Talk to Me" pivots into a different movie. The turning point is the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, when black Americans fully understood that a change wasn't going to just come, that they'd have to take it. Cheadle plays Petey's on-air performance that night, when the disc jockey almost single-handedly calmed the rage of D.C. rioters, as furious and sorrowful and absolutely certain this wasn't what the Reverend wanted. It's a tricky tone and the actor nails it; when the other characters applaud Petey at the end of his stint, you feel they're praising Cheadle, too.

After this, the movie becomes obsessed with the theme of "keeping it real," which is Dewey's battle more than Petey's. (Not surprisingly, co-screenwriter Michael Genet is Hughes's son.) The producer learns a new sense of pride from his DJ's bluntness -- cue the afro and dashikis -- but he also thinks he can sell it to white America. He becomes Petey's manager, books him on the comedy circuit, and aims for the big time.

That's where he, and to a lesser extent the movie, get into trouble. How do you mass-market a voice of dissent? Dewey thinks he knows, but the deepening anxiety on Petey's face says it all. Maybe he looked into the future and saw what happened to Richard Pryor .

So Cheadle recedes from "Talk to Me," as Petey walks off "The Tonight Show" and dwindles into inconsequence (he died of cancer in 1984). Ejiofor, an extremely smart actor, does what he can to enliven Dewey's progress toward racial self-respect, but the character's too compromised. Worse, he's too dull. The movie bets on the big picture but puts its money on the wrong horse.

In a closing title, we learn that Dewey Hughes went on to buy WOL, which is now a cornerstone of Clear Channel Communications -- the faceless corporate behemoth that has successfully packaged individuality right off the airwaves. "Talk To Me" apparently wants us to think that's progress. I could tell you what Petey Greene might call it, but I can't print it.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

'Related'

Talk to Me

Directed by: Kasi Lemmons

Written by: Michael Genet , Rick Famuyiwa

Starring: Don Cheadle , Chiwetel Ejiofor , Taraji P. Henson , Cedric the Entertainer , Martin Sheen

At: Kendall Square, Cambridge

Running time: 118 minutes

Rated: R (pervasive language, some sexual content)

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