Don Cheadle is electrifying as 1960s-1970s DJ and television personality Waldo "Petey" Greene in Kasi Lemmons' propulsive biographical drama.
Written by Greene's son, Michael Genet, and Rick Famuyiwa, the film skips Greene's early years in Depression-era Washington, D.C., and picks up his story in the mid-'60s, as he's doing a stretch for armed robbery in Virginia’s Lorton prison. Petey does a daily free-form broadcast over the prison PA system, rapping, slinging profanity with the skill of a master, and generally charming the hell out of his literally captive audience with a shrewd mix of street-smart jokes and anti-establishment jibes. WOL-AM program director Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) catches Petey's act while visiting his brother (Mike Epps) and casually suggests that Petey look him up when he gets out. Petey doesn't need to be invited twice, and Dewey — charged by station owner E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen) with hauling pop-heavy WOL's ratings out of the trash heap — gets him on the air as a replacement for longtime morning host Sunny Jim Kelsey (Vondie Curtis-Hall). Petey's untrained patter and trash-talking hustler shtick don't thrill Sonderling, but combined with a smoking new emphasis on funk and soul music, they resonate powerfully with Washington's increasingly restless black community. Petey's rise is inextricably linked to his black-is-beautiful pride and gut-level activism, but as the media-savvy Dewey lays the groundwork for turning Petey's persona into a national brand, starting with the local TV show Petey Greene's Washington, Petey becomes increasingly defiant: He may not have Dewey's education, but he knows the key to his appeal is his raw connection to the streets.
The filmmakers take the usual liberties with Greene's life, massaging it into standard showbiz rise-and-fall form — he wasn't the only WOL DJ to use his platform to preach nonviolence after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King sparked rioting in the streets, and he never made a disastrous appearance on The Johnny Carson Show. But the broad outlines are solid and the largely forgotten Greene, who died of liver cancer in 1984, is a compelling figure. Taraji P. Henson is overbearing as Petey's loud, attitudinal girlfriend, former "shake dancer" Vernell Watson (though she wears thigh-high miniskirts and an Angela Davis afro with glorious aplomb), but Cheadle and Ejiofor are riveting together; they have the kind of apparently effortless chemistry that makes every scene they share a delight. With a dynamite soundtrack under their feet, the two of them rock the house. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh