A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
The story of Petey Greene was a movie waiting to be made. Greene came out of prison to become, literally overnight, a popular and influential DJ. He was on WOL, a Washington, D.C., station that was looking for a morning man to connect with its African-American audience and got more than it bargained for. Don Cheadle gives a fascinating performance as a man able to step out of a cell and into a broadcast booth, but not sure where to step next.
The movie, directed by Kasi Lemmons ("Eve's Bayou," my best movie of 1997), remembers a time in the 1960s when the word "Negro" was replaced by "black," when R&B performers like Sam Cooke redefined popular music, when the civil rights movement brought enormous change, and when the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. brought despair and anger. The man on the radio in the morning in Washington would stand at the center of these events.
The movie begins with a whirlpool of comedy and manic energy, and then grows, as it must, more serious and introspective. Cheadle, that superb actor, embodies the complexities of Petey Greene in a performance that goes from high through second into low (that's harder and more interesting than the usual shifting). When we first meet him, he's a DJ in prison, pumping R&B and his colorful vocabulary out to his fellow inmates. He seems incapable of uttering a boring word.
WOL program director Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), visiting his brother Milo (Mike Epps) in prison one day, hears Petey and meets him. He casually asks him to look him up when he gets out, possibly picturing Petey sorting a stack of mail or emptying wastebaskets. Petey doesn't see it that way. A self-described con man, he talks his way out of prison and into Dewey's office, demanding the DJ job he thinks (or pretends) he has been offered. Helping him charge over the office staff on his way to the inner sanctum is his girlfriend Vernell, played by Taraji P. Henson as an unstoppable force and immovable object rolled into one.