I saw a great film the other night, “Talk to Me”, about the life of “Petey” Greene, Jr. (1931 – 1984), an American TV and radio talk show host who rose to notoriety just before Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. Don Cheadle played Petey, and Chiwetel Ejiofor played the man who believed in him, Dewey Hughes.
Petey’s father was a pimp / professional con artist. At age 30 Petey was serving a ten-year prison sentence. Having left school at 16, he’d fought in Korea, been dishonorably discharged for heroin possession and subsequently supported himself as a con artist and drug dealer. Prison just stopped him going down that road. Life had better things in store for him.
He had an unquenchable thirst for life, an absolute irreverence for morality that had no real substance, and despised hypocrisy. He was a performer at heart with seemingly no fear, and boy did he have a mouth! He became hugely popular as the prison DJ. But he wanted his freedom, and he had a dream – to work on radio. He also had an imagination.
One day an inmate climbed a prison tower and threatened to commit suicide. The whole prison was on the verge of a riot, and Petey was called to try and intercept. Which he said he would, in exchange for an early release. When the man was down and the prison warden was in awe of his powers of persuasion, Petey drily said to the side “it took me 6 months to persuade him to get up there in the first place”. You just couldn’t keep him down.
Once out of prison he convinced Dewey Hughes at respectable AM radio station WOL to give him a job as a disc jockey. He was a nightmare for them, always drunk, often late, and at a time when part of America was trying to pretend that racism was just fine or – alongside with poverty – didn’t exist, and the other part was fighting for the truth to be acknowledged, he used the radio station to lash out at injustices.
It got him fired. But Hughes (station manager) believed in him, and locked the station owner in his office, and Petey in the studio so he could do his show! The phones started ringing off the hook and Petey’s job was safe.
A man of courage who rose above his legacy, found solutions, acknowledged the truth of what was happening in America and wasn’t afraid to tell it like it was. He couldn’t be gagged with threats. He was unstoppable, and gradually earned the admiration of his employers, co-workers, and peers. Not to mention those he gave a voice to.
The thing about him that I really loved was that he didn’t care about fame, glitz or glamor. He was offered it, but he didn’t want it. He cared about being real and staying connected. I could relate to that. Something else I took away, though, was that he didn’t do it alone. Dewey Hughes believed in him passionately and made space for him, then got behind him and promoted him like crazy.
It doesn’t matter what your dream is, or your circumstances, or even your past. You can find a way. And you just don’t have to go it alone.
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