Talk to Me
A lot of times we don't speak up. We have lots of reasons for this. Sometimes we are scared. Sometimes we don't trust ourselves to say what we mean. Sometimes we just don't know what to say. Sometimes we have ruptured our vocal cords or have been captured by wrongdoers and are gagged in an all-windows office looking at the world about to be destroyed. We have lots of reasons, and so, we look around and we pick out other people to be our voices. Maybe a musician who sings real good or a comedian who tells it the way you always thought it should be told or a writer who, I don't know, uses commas, you know, the way commas ought to be used. We choose our voices, and it's all well and good: at least up until our chosen voices change their tunes.
Well, they don't mean to. Because the thing about it is that our voices, our agents, we forget, are other people. They don't exactly live inside our heads, no matter how many times we seem to hear them coming straight from the cobwebs in the corners next to the memory of our birthday party circa turning eight years old (ice cream cake, the movies, a fight). We ought to know this. We ought to know they aren't us (they weren't at the party, after all). And yet doesn't it feel so personal? Doesn't it feel a bit like a betrayal?
This movie is based on truths. Petey Greene (the sideburnituded Don Cheadle) was a radio DJ, and he was important to a community (black) in a place (Washington DC) at a time (Civil Rights, raging). He was an ex-con and his story is for real, including the part about how he talked a lot of shit, drank a lot of alcohol, and was BFFs with a man named Dewey Hughes (black, Washington DC, idolized Johnny Carson and no one else). Dewey (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who will be such a star soon you will know how to pronounce his name) up and makes the very same mistake we all make, all the time. He grabs onto Petey 'cause Petey says the things that Dewey maybe would have said originally had he not got caught up in trying to score big in a Martin Sheen world. Which you can't blame him for that, or can you? The movie is unsure.
Our Dewey pushes Petey to standup, and then to television, and all the way up and up to the Tonight Show, where Petey instead of doing a standup set gets out in front of the curtain, smokes a cigarette, and says a few things echoed just three decades later by Dave Chappelle. Because it turns out that (a) when you're the chosen voice of the disenfranchised and (b) the not-so-disenfranchised get all excited about making money off of you, well then (c) at some point if you have any sense in your head at all you realize that you've created a moral paradox, and finally (d1) you probably have nothing left to do but to quit your Comedy Central show and run off to South Africa or to (d2) smoke a cigarette instead of doing your routine on the Tonight Show. Which is fine, except for how your BFF wanted you to do it right so badly, and your audience wanted another season, so much, and both are left to fend alone. So now what.
That's what compels, about the Petey Greene story. Not the alcoholism (it's there) or the platitudes about race (they're there, though, it's been a long time since such earnest respect was paid on film to Dr. MLK), or the sub-sub plot about another brother in jail. What compels is watching a man choose his proxy, watching his proxy fold for all the right reasons, and then waiting to see if that first man will be able to stand up for himself. Will we ever, do we ever need to, so long as there are other books, or other songs, or other films, or other plays? I would like to think that eventually we'll all have our own voices. I would like to think we'll all some day just realize that what we say out loud just is, and doesn't need fixing, necessarily; we're the only ones who can speak for ourselves. The rest are just getting close. Sure, and I know a strong but flawed biopic isn't going to give me the answers. I'm just glad it even started the questions.