Convicted felon Ralph Waldo ‘Petey’ Green is determined to make it as a radio DJ in ’60s Washington, D. C. As programme director of WOL-AM, Dewey Hughes (Ejiofor), the uptight brother of a fellow con, could provide him with the big break he needs…
Set against a backdrop of tumultuous social change in ’60s America, this true story of a radio superstar in the making
and the producer who first tolerates, then collaborates with him, has character insight and zingy interplay to burn. Petey Green (Don Cheadle) was a fascinating character, disarmingly open about his own shortcomings but also unafraid to criticise the authorities and point out hypocrisy. Cheadle gets his teeth into the character, nailing his distinctive drawl and making a fair stab at the contradictory creature underneath: a populist who was also something of a loner; an affectionate boyfriend and serial cheater.
Ejiofor has a scarcely less complex role. As a black radio executive, even in a liberal environment such as WOL-AM, his Dewey Hughes is a walking anomaly all too aware of the fine line he walks in the segregated society of the day. Hughes starts to see Green as his meal ticket - but doesn’t realise that their friendship offers him a way to figure out his own identity. It’s a difficult role, and a much better showcase for Ejiofor than his near-cameo in American Gangster.
Between the music, outré fashions and soaring hairstyles, there’s a strong sense of time and place. But the narrative is too clumsy; some hopping about is inevitable in a story spanning 20-odd years, but it all too often descends into distracting scrappiness. The tone flits from buddy comedy, to political agitation, to tender relationship drama with little warning, and it almost feels like some deleted scenes have been left in the narrative - one moment early on is recounted again in dialogue only a few minutes later, as if we could have missed it. That the end result remains charming and good-hearted is almost entirely down to those two great central turns.
There’s terrific chemistry between the leads, but an episodic structure set over 20 years is too sprawling to really allow for a connection.
Reviewed by Helen O'Hara