Turn on the Radio: An Interview with Kasi Lemmons
by Matthew Vasiliauskas
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In April of 1963, after a series of restaurant sit-ins and public protests in Alabama, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and confined to a small prison cell at a Birmingham jail. There, using discarded newspaper and a small notepad that was smuggled into him, King began composing a letter to several of his fellow clergymen who had openly criticized his actions in connection with the civil rights movement.
Addressing the concerns of these clergymen, King said in the letter, “More basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.”
King would go onto to say, “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
King was so much more than a civil rights activist. As displayed in his letter, he was more appropriately a voice by which the concerns of prejudice and injustice could be addressed with the utmost sincerity and elegance.
It is this idea of bypassing visual culture ,which so heavily influences the public’s view of race, gender and image, and instead embracing the faceless, universal qualities of radio that dominate Kasi Lemmons’ latest film, Talk to Me.
Taking place during the turbulent years of the civil rights movement in Washington D.C., Talk to Me follows ex-inmate Petey Greene, played by Don Cheadle as he obtains a disc jockey job at D.C.’s WOL-AM where he is taken under the wing of program director Dewey Hughes, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor.
At the station, Petey becomes an iconic radio personality, surpassing even the established popularity of his fellow disc jockeys, Nighthawk played by Cedric The Entertainer, and Sunny Jim, played by Vondie Curtis Hall. Combining raw humor with social commentary, Petey openly courts controversy for the station and its owner played by Martin Sheen.
As Petey’s voice, humor, and spirit surge across the airwaves with the vitality of the era, listeners tune in to hear not only the music of the times, but also a man speaking directly to them about race and power in America.
Recently, I was able to sit down with director Kasi Lemmons to talk about her experiences with the story of Petey Greene, and how his voice was able to comfort and motivate audiences in the midst of a confusing and conflicted portion of American history.
Matthew Vasiliauskas: What was it about the story of Petey Greene that interested you and motivated you to pursue it?
Kasi Lemmons: Well in some ways, I loved his voice. That he was able to reach people and sort of shake up the world at a time when you didn’t see a lot shaking up the world other than politicians. Sometimes you just want to say I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. And in many ways, Petey Greene was that voice for me.
MV: When dealing with a film like this that is based on a real-life character, how do you decide what aspects of the story to remain faithful to, while potentially embellishing others in order to reveal emotional shifts within characters?
KL: I was definitely motivated by the structure of the relationship between the two men. So I tried to stay to that. I wanted to tell a story about friendship, and was very informed by my conversations with Dewey Hughes and the language he used when describing Petey and the things he had done. But I made a decision that it was a story about friendship that also had this incredible time and place around it. I never thought of it as the Petey Green story, I thought of it as a movie. We tried to be respectful to history and to the time and place.
MV: It seems like a primary component within your three films is the inclusion of an anti-hero, someone who is certainly flawed but who we feel compassion for at the same time. For you, is there some kind of attraction to characters possessing these certain qualities?
KL: When I think of all the projects I’ve done and have been interested in, that particular trait is very consistent. I am interested in the gray area of humanity, the area between being an absolute hero or a heal. I think most people are really complicated, and in some ways the challenge of making somebody who is a challenging character likeable or so at least you can see their humanity. I find that very appealing.
With Petey, you love him and hate him. He’d be a very difficult friend. Very unpredictable. But to me he’s a very, very lovable character because he’s honest. He’s not pretending to be someone he’s not. That’s who he is. What you see is what you get, that’s a Petey theme song. He’s in your face, but that’s what it is. And as a character in the movie, he might bullshit a lot but he doesn’t lie. He’s pretty honest, and as a character has a lot of integrity. Whereas Dewey is searching for his identity, and actually changing his identity from who he was before, and he’s the one who really makes the journey. Petey stays fairly consistent. This is who I am and this is who I’ve always been. And I think that’s interesting. But really the gray area is what intrigues me. The idea that he’s a hero, but that doesn’t mean he’s perfect.
MV: Have we as a society lost something due to our obsession with visual culture as opposed to oral?
KL: I find cinema to be a very beautiful medium to influence. And I’ve seen a lot of things that I didn’t necessarily think of until I saw them in a movie. But there are tons of things you never thought of before, but you can relate them perfectly. The most interesting thing to me about movies is why am I able to watch something like The Ice Storm and have a personal experience? What do I really have to do with those people? But at the same time, it’s very universal.
I have to say, the radio is really interesting because it goes out without a visual picture and it’s very intimate; somebody is in your car or house talking. And it’s even intimate in the role of the DJ because it’s just you and the mic and you hear your own voice. There’s something romantic about that transference of communication between the DJ and the people, especially when they’re calling in.
MV: What was your approach in creating the look for this period film?
KL: Well it’s in the details, but you have to find a way of telling time. What I didn’t want to do was stick the year in every few scenes, that would be really icky. So you find a more cinematic way of doing it. One way was with The Tonight Show. The first time we see Johnny Carson, it’s 1966, and the last time we see him, it’s 1982. Because he’s such a familiar figure, you can watch him get older, and it’s a way of marking time. The other was Taraji Henson’s wigs. With the wigs we put on Vernell, you were able to see the different styles and shapes and this allowed the audience to understand the passage of time as well. You can do a lot of telling of time without having to put a label on it.
MV: Has your history in acting allowed you to relate to actors on a more personal level?
KL: I have a great deal of empathy for actors. I think it’s very lucid like sand through your fingers. Sometimes you hit it right on and sometimes you have to search for it. I never know if it helps me as a director because I’ve always been just me. I feel like having a writing and acting background is a good marriage to produce the offspring of directing. All directors should act because it teaches you respect for actors for how hard it is what they’re doing. I definitely became much more enamored of actors as a director than when I was an actor.
MV: What was it like working with Don Cheadle?
KL: I adore him. I was really nervous about it. I knew I wanted him to do the movie but the first meeting I had with him I was really nervous. Even though I’ve known him for some time. In fact, he came to my friends and family screening of Caveman’s Valentime and gave me notes. And I have tremendous respect for him as an actor. But now I have to convince him to do this movie when he’s at a place in his career where he’s been nominated for an Oscar for this great work.
When he came on board, I got really excited as to the possibility he would bring to the character and that I would be a part of it. That I was going to be a part of seeing and being there as Don Cheadle being Petey Green. And I thought, this is incredible.
Because of Hotel Rwanda, Crash and The Devil in the Blue Dress, I knew his extraordinary range. And what I think I knew that some people didn’t was that he was funny. And I find that really great actors are funny. And one of the things that interests me about this particular story is that the structure changes quickly from comedy to tragedy. I wanted to see Don just unleash, and become completely raw. And there are moments when I’m watching him that I lose the actor, and those are the moments you live for as a director. There’s a sequence when he’s doing stand up in a club and it’s not Cheadle and it’s incredible. It took my breath away. And one day we were doing ADR and he was with me and we were looking at one of those scenes and he turned to me and said where did that come from? And I love those moments when actors are really channeling something. It’s a magical gift.
MV: Because of the content and the characters within the film, is it difficult to get a project such as this funded?
KL: It is a Black drama, which is typically difficult to get made. People seem to be afraid of them, and yet they’ve done tremendously well. I mean films like Ray, Hotel Rwanda. So I’m not sure where it comes from, but the more that are successful the better things go and then more are able to be made. So I’m hoping for a lot of reasons that this is successful. Not just for personal reasons, but because it will open up and allow other African American filmmakers to tell the stories they want to tell.
Matthew Vasiliauskas is a filmmaker and film critic living in Chicago.
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