R for pervasive language and some sexual content.
1 hr. 58 min.
written by: Rick Famuyiwa & Michael Genet
produced by: Joe Fries, Mark R. Gordon, Sidney Kimmel & Josh McLaughlin
directed by: Kasi Lemmons
I first noticed writer and director Kasi Lemmons for her acting work, playing Jodie Foster's fellow FBI trainee/student in Jonathan Demme's "Silence of the Lambs". It wasn't a standout performance but the movie left such an indelible mark that I found myself remembering almost everyone in it. She went on to build a reputable enough filmography as an actress but the next time her name caught my attention was for the 1997 film, "Eve's Bayou", her directorial debut starring Lynn Whitfield and Samuel L. Jackson. A critically lauded film set in 1960's Louisiana about a secret that tears apart a well-to-do family. I didn't see her 2001 follow-up film (also with Jackson) "The Caveman's Valentine" but it's a film that I been meanin' to check out. I'm always interesting in actors turned directors, usually the actors are more recognizable before they make the switch (Kevin Costner & Denzel Washington come to mind). This year, Focus Features released Lemmons' latest film which tells the true story of foul-mouthed, ex-con who became a sensation by just being himself.
Ralph Waldo "Petey" Green (Don Cheadle), a formerly imprisoned hustler would go on to become a voice as a radio show host in the late 1960s. While visiting his brother Milo (Mike Epps) at Lorton prison, radio producer Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) meets Petey for the first time, not knowing what an indelible mark he would make in his life. Petey asks him straight up for a job at WOL-AM, since he's been flippin' and spinnin' vinyl for the prison inmates. Dewey dismisses the convict, calling him a "low-life, miscreant", promising him he'd see what he could do, should the convict ever get out of prison. Of course we know where this is going, Petey does indeed "look up" Dewey and winds up hounding him for a DJ job with a ferocious tenacity. He soon shows up at the station, demanding a job, embarrassing straight-laced Dewey and laying the groundwork for a tumultuous relationship between the two men.
Eventually Dewey gives in, much to his dismay and in time Petey becomes a huge hit with the black community, who are taken with his tell-it-like-it-is persona. Station owner E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen) has no idea what to make of Petey, but he loves the fact that the station's ratings are up. His success doesn't sit well with the other DJ's, Sunny Jim (Curtis Hondie Hall) or The Nighthawk (Cedric the Entertainer) but once Petey takes to the air to calm the violence that hits DC after the sudden announcement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. he gains just about everyone's respect and even more intense fan-following. They love him because he's one of them and doesn't hold anything back while the station heads love him cuz of the ratings and flood of calls.
This all could've gone the wrong way and I give credit to the writers and Lemmons for delivering something genuine and real. Of course Cheadle is an amazing actor and he certainly shines here but he really is working from a great script. So often, biopics go wrong, often degenerating into sentimental slop that includes the classic rise and fall of any star. It can really just make a real person's life look like a series of ridiculous clichés. It would have been easy to play this story primarily for laughs, rather than exploring Petey or Dewey with any sense of depth or emotional complexity.
What Lemmons attempts and successfully pulls off is to create a pair of complex characters who are as interesting as they are flawed. Ultimately, the film is as much about Dewey as it is about Petey and that's perfect for such a fine actor as Ejiofor, who has been steadily building an impressive list of supporting roles in films like "Children of Men", "Serenity", and "Inside Man". He holds his own opposite Cheadle, and as the story shifts to focus on Dewey's story, he easily carries the film. It's a wonderful opportunity for both actors to showcase talents that would be relegated to character roles in lesser films.
Other films "inspired by a true story" often fall short in that they come across as some sort of summary of a larger story, but here there is structure which gives the impression of being more complete. There is more emphasis on simply entertaining the audience, character development, and pushing a few emotional buttons then there is giving a history lesson. Still, I did feel educated cuz I knew nothing of Petey Greene, who not only served as a pioneer in the world of radio shock jocks, he also helped inner-city black America find its voice during the post-Civil Rights years. He's not the most respectable character but I give him credit for not becoming a sell-out and staying true to who he was. The film ends up bridging the gap between entertainment and social enlightenment while never falling back on the trappings that often plague films of this nature which can leave them either too heavy-handed or too light-hearted. I dunno if Oscar will remember this movie but I could easily see this on some Top Film lists at the end of the year simply due to the performances.
I didn't check out the two featurettes but I did do some homework on them. The first is Who is Petey Greene? which has no inclusion of any actual Petey Greene footage nor is there any interviews with the real Dewey Hughes, and no participation by anyone other than the cast and crew. Lame. It's too bad they didn't include a short doc about Greene, and give viewers something unique and interesting. The other feature is Recreating P-Town is slightly more informative, but certainly no less pedestrian, as it explains how the costumes and the sets were designed. I did watch the deleted scenes (most of them were extended versions of existing scenes) which made me wonder why they were cut. For example, it woulda been nice to keep the minute or two trimmed from Martin Sheen's powerful moment following the murder of Martin Luther King. The same can be said for the two scenes that were completely omitted that help develop Petey's humanity as a character. It would have been really nice to have an audio commentary with Lemmons, Cheadle & Ejiofor for the entire film too.
- Back in 2000, there was a Petey Greene film in development with Martin Lawrence attached to star, now that woulda been a whole different take, I fear. Greene's biographer Lurma Rackley was to write the script but contract negotiations broke down.
- Lemmons is married to actor Vondie Curtis-Hall who stars in the film. She cast him Eve's Bayou" and in the short-film that followed "Dr. Hugo". In turn, as director he also cast her in 1997's "Gridlock'd" and 2006's "Waist Deep".
- Lemmons first name is pronounced "Casey"
- filming for the movie took place in: DC, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, Penny's Gas Station in Rush Valley, Utah, Tooele County, Utah, Toronto, Canada, and the Washington Monument