"Wake up, goddammit!" was the signature shout-out of Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, one of the unlikeliest media stars to arise from the boiling social cauldron of the late '60s. A convict, a hustler and an all-around charmer, Greene got his start as a prison DJ, and after a parole for talking a fellow inmate off the water tower, he sweet-talked his way into an on-air gig at Washington, D.C.'s urban powerhouse, WOL-AM. Don Cheadle is Petey and runs with it like a man on fire, with a performance as broad and colorful as the lapels on his skin-tight jumpsuits; his charismatic stranglehold never relents.
It's a good thing, since director Kasi Lemmons never met a static close-up she didn't love, and the script rolls along filled with biopic clichés. A crazy dreamer battling the system? Check. Stuffy boss with a heart of gold? Check. A rocky rivalry that turns into a lasting friendship? Check. It's amazing how the filmmakers manage to squeeze such a messy life into such a familiar and glossy package, though Cheadle never lets the hero's edges get entirely rounded off. His Petey is a brazen, ambitious climber, with an artful skill at turning bullshit into simple truths. He has a natural counterpoint in the buttoned-down efficiency of Chiwetel Ejiofor as radio exec Dewey Hughes. A model of Sidney Poitier smoothness and refinement, Hughes is savvy enough to dig Petey's soulful, streetwise populism when he overhears it on a jailhouse visit to his brother (Mike Epps). This combative odd couple forms a powerful team, as they transform the station into the funky voice of the people, with Petey as the figurehead, against the violent protest of a hammy Martin Sheen, as the station's blustery owner. Of course, we know how this struggle is going to turn out, with montages set to bursts of vintage Motown and soul standing in for an authentic portrait of the era.
Lemmons never really gets hold of the times, with all the Afros, flares and polyester shirts seeming just like Halloween dress-up, nor does she completely make sense of the combustible personality at the center of the picture. Petey became a hit in a very specific time and place, and because he spoke directly to a community in a language they could feel, and that feel is tricky to capture. There are glimpses of Greene's outrageous honesty, as when he calls Berry Gordy a pimp, but the movie politely sidesteps his more embarrassingly wild humor, like his infamous "how to eat a watermelon" routine. You can't tie a mustang down, and the very immediacy of Greene's rap, made him a legend to some, but prevented him from reaching a wider audience. Too often trailblazers get obscured by the dust kicked up by those who follow, and the film both overstates Greene's importance and misses the impact of his message. The excitement of Cheadle's brilliant work is enough to draw us in.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].