September 12, 2007
Roles of a Lifetine as Actor and Activist
Meet Petey Greene.
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Director Kasi Lemmon's energetic biopic Talk to Me provides the introduction. In this summer's counter-programming release, Don Cheadle portrays the iconic Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, an ex-con street hustler-turned-Washington, D.C. radio shock jock.
It was at the height of the '60s civil rights movement, when Petey's "the truth just is" attitude perfectly complemented the vibrant soul music reverberating throughout "Chocolate City." Armed with what he called a "PhD in poverty," Petey encouraged community involvement, naming names and providing addresses for his listeners to agitate change.
For Cheadle, who garnered Oscar consideration as the courageous hotel manager in Hotel Rwanda, Petey is a perfect fit, combining biting humor with social commentary. Unlike Petey, the 42-year-old Kansas City, Mo. native doesn't have a prison record, is faithful to his longtime companion, actress Bridgid Coulter, a loving dad to the couple's two daughters, Ayana Tai, 12, and Imani, 10, and stops after one or two drinks.
Despite the passage of four decades, there are unmistakable similarities between Cheadle and his onscreen alter ego – both are outspoken, live in political turbulent times, and are fearless in their drive to right social injustice. In the earlier era, Petey's platforms were proper job training, education and registering to vote among African- Americans. Today, Cheadle's platform is activism against atrocities in war-torn Sudan.
"I just think Petey embodied the kind of spirit that would be refreshing today. When people are upfront with us, we almost always find it, even if we're insulted, like 'Wow. That's rare,'" said Cheadle.
"We've seen a PC-ing of everything, I think to our great detriment. I think a lot of the places where we are today is because people aren't straightforward and honest. We've been diminished in a great many ways."
Going into the project, Cheadle candidly admitted he'd never heard of Petey, who died in 1984, some 15 years before screenwriter Michael Genet decided to draft the story. Two valuable resources helped fill the blanks. The first was Genet's father, Dewey Hughes. As program director at WOL-AM, Hughes risked his career by putting Petey behind the mike, and was forced to run interference when station owner E.G. Sonderling (played by Martin Sheen) balked. Brilliantly filling Dewey's role is Golden Globe nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor.
The other was a vintage film clip currently seen on YouTube titled "How to Eat Watermelon." Cheadle employs his hands to punctuate his comment, "Petey was a live wire and you could never tell where he'd go. His perception on things was always off center at a degree that was steep and dangerous, yet really precise and insightful. You just have to look at that piece, it [encapsulated] how he talked about racism, manners, [and] prevailing attitudes by just saying, 'I'm going to eat watermelon.'
"Right off the bat, you're thinking, 'What are you talking about?' He blows up every stereotype by going right to the stereotype. 'Here, I'm the stereotype.' He didn't try to talk around the edges, but would go right to the heart of it."
Lemmons, who helmed the more classically mounted Eve's Bayou, caught a glimpse of that channeled genius.
"What surprised me the most is how easy [Cheadle] was to work with," she said. "I'll tell you a great discovery; there are moments in each performance where I lose the actors entirely into the character. There's a point in Talk to Me when he's doing stand-up that Don's not there. We were going over the daily rushes and Don walked in and said, 'Hey, where did that come from?' He also saw it."
Sure, there's satisfaction in making movies that address major issues, but Cheadle's top priority has always been to entertain audiences. Whether he's playing a gold-toothed gangster in Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress, or appearing on Broadway in Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize winning drama Top Dog/Underdog.
"I don't sit down with an agenda. I want to do projects that are interesting and fun that I haven't done before," he said. Just this year he's appeared as a college buddy to grief-stricken Adam Sandler in Reign Over Me, and reunited with George Clooney's band of thieves for Ocean's Thirteen.
Laughter comes easily to Cheadle, but there's one subject – the genocide in Darfur – that instantly changes his demeanor. He became aware of the violence in South Africa while filming Hotel Rwanda. Since then, he's visited China and Egypt, testified before the U.S. Senate, and teamed up with Oceans' cronies Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon to form an organization called "Not on Our Watch."
Proudly, he pointed out, "We started just a few weeks ago and have already raised $10 million. So the tentacles of this seem to just keeping folding in. I'm trying to braid them all into a rope that we can [use to] start flagging this issue and get people to push our government."
Further reflecting the depth of Cheadle's commitment, with human rights activist John Prendergast he co-authored the recently published tome, Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond.
"It's an attempt in one document to answer the hundreds of questions I received after going to Rwanda about what people can do to help. To be honest, I don't have all the answers. I'm a student, someone who is learning. I'm in the stream with all these other people trying to figure out what to do."
Remaining proactive, Cheadle is overseeing the final edits on a documentary about Sudan.
He concluded, "I don't believe there is one answer, but I feel very fortunate and blessed to be involved with anything that might be a solution."