Kasi Lemmons' (Eve's Bayou) latest film, Talk to Me, concerns a man who puts today's vacuous, hate-spewing shock jocks to shame. Politically outspoken ex-con-turned-radio-DJ Petey Greene (Don Cheadle) brought the issues of African-Americans to the fore from his microphone pulpit in a racially charged 1960s-era Washington, D.C.
Why was it important to tell Greene's story now? We were going through a time when people were very measured and cautious about what they said ... when I first got interested in the film. Now I think people are getting more outspoken because people are so fed up with the government and fed up with the status quo. But Petey had both rhyme and reason. I think that is something we are nostalgic for. A time of activism when change was possible. It was a devastating time, but it was a really interesting time. The government thought a revolution might happen. It was possible for your voice to change the world, and I think that we've lost a bit of that, and that would be a cool thing to recover.
What helped you the most in creating the look of Talk to Me? Our bible was a movie called Wattstax. After the Watts Riots [in 1965] they gave a concert to benefit Watts and heal. It was a huge concert: Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, the Bar-Kays, really super, super '70s. And then [director Mel Stuart] intercuts it with conversations with people about being black in America.
Do you think it's getting easier to make films in Hollywood that deal with the black experience? It's difficult to make movies period. And there are so many reasons to say no to a film. And being about the black experience is a reason to say no ... You have to set up the "yes." You have to make it about why they should do it. It's all about precedent in Hollywood and [that's] one thing that really helps us; Ray helps us, Ali helps us ... If my film makes money it will be helpful to other people trying to make a film about the black experience.
Because you go back and forth being an actor and director, which do you prefer? Acting. I don't want to say I'm done, but it feels like another part of my life. It was my first love and I loved it. But I felt that there were so many wonderful actors much more talented and beautiful than I was. I didn't feel that I had a rare gift to give. As an African-American female writer/director, I feel like I have a rare gift to give back to the industry that's nurtured me. They need me in this industry because I have a different perspective. Forget the black thing; that's a whole other subject. I think that in some ways black filmmaking has progressed and there are some of us working – not enough – that might begin to approximate the national statistic. But when you look at women, this is not at all approaching the national statistic. We are completely, grotesquely underrepresented as compared to the national average.
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