Kasi Lemmons and Talk to Me aren't a meet-cute story. The writer-director-actor first came across the script for the '60s biopic as a potential project for her husband, the film and TV vet Vondie Curtis Hall (Romeo & Juliet, ER). But she kept coming back to the script, by Michael Genet (She Hate Me) and Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood), and "it grew on me," she says over a lunchtime phone call from her house in Los Angeles. "I fell in love."
It would've been hard not to fall, even on the page, for Petey Green, the real-life former convict who scammed his way onto airwaves in 1960s Washington, DC. As brought to life by Don Cheadle in Talk to Me, opening Friday, Green is cool and charismatic, the guy in the red snakeskin boots amongst a sea of prison-issue Converse. The guy who conned his way out of jail by not only talking down a jumper, but convincing him to go up in the first place. The guy who looked at the smart-talking, tie-wearing, Johnny Carson-idolizing radio exec Dewey Hughes (Inside Man's Chiwetel Ejiofor, making his choices smart to keep his career hot) and misjudged him, but managed to win him over in the end, anyway.
Talk to Me follows Green from prison, where he meets Hughes, whose brother is in the joint, much to Hughes' embarrassment and disgust. Green is the prison's DJ, and he wrangles a vague promise from the uppity Hughes to hook him up at his radio station when he gets out. To Hughes' horror, he gets out in half the time and Green tracks him down. (Martin Sheen has a great supporting role as the harried-but-fair station manager trying to bump up ratings while appeasing conservative DC, bursting at the seams thanks to civil unrest and Vietnam war opposition.) The first hour of the film is spent getting Green on the radio—the centrepiece is when he must announce that Martin Luther King Jr. has been murdered—while the second, uneven half follows his career onto television, into stand-up comedy clubs and eventually down the toilet thanks to a drinking problem. But before the fall, he was a local hero, despite (and probably because of) his checkered past.
"Right now, we are living in an age where people are afraid to speak for fear of being labeled unpatriotic, anti-American, racist, sexist, whatever...it was bracing to be going back to a place where someone like Petey said what people were feeling and gave them a voice," says Lemmons. "I wanted to make it as an uplifting but funky and unconventional film. If I made it into a slick comedy, that would be doing Petey and the material a disservice. It needed to be gritty, musical and authentic to the period."
Though it has inspired moments of humour—Taraji P. Henson, as Petey's girlfriend, expands on the thoughtful comic range that nearly stole Hustle & Flow from Terrence Howard—Talk to Me is all those things. "We actually changed the temperature of the streetlights to make it like the '60s," says Lemmons of the joys of period filmmaking. The soundtrack features close to 30 songs from the era, including James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" by Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations and Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher."
"One point one, one point two," Lemmons estimates casually of the million dollars allocated from her budget for music. "The filmmaker in me wanted to go the cheaper route—I could use that money, you know!"
Also an actor (you might remember her from such roles as Clarice Starling's roommate in Silence of the Lambs), Lemmons wrote and directed the southern phenom Eve's Bayou (1997), which won her an Independent Spirit Award, and directed the Samuel L. Jackson starrer The Caveman's Valentine, which opened the Sundance Film Festival in 2001. She's been with Talk to Me for a few years, and has a couple projects on the horizon. But despite her successes, filmmaking hasn't gotten any easier.
"The climate has changed," she says soberly. "If I, where I am right now, today, wanted to make Eve's Bayou I don't know if I could do it. The distribution and exhibition systems have changed, it's all about first weekends. It's hard for these smaller movies to break through."
Talk to Me opens Friday, August 10.