In the late 1960s, when Wolfman Jack was the wildest on-air personality around and Howard Stern was still in high school, Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr. (Cheadle) shook the airwaves of Washington, D.C., with seismic force. The loudmouthing, pimp-walking ex-con offered firebombs with sugar water, blowing away the cotton-candy sounds of WOL-AM with a candor about race, media and politics that made him Chocolate City’s vox populi.
Most viewers will have never heard of Greene, but watching a keen actor like Cheadle savor the swagger is unadulterated pleasure. Pity that director Kasi Lemmons fits the story into the hoary biopic mold, milking the peaks and valleys of Greene’s life for soupy sentiment and churning up dime-store platitudes about keepin’ it real.
The twist on cinematic convention is Greene’s relationship with radio programmer Dewey Hughes (Ejiofor), an Oreo brother who shuns his ghetto past while aping Johnny Carson’s personal style. The pair’s conflicting dynamic—between unleashed ego and buttoned-down id—propels both their careers and hints at a deeper drama about racial identity and personal integrity. But the writing and direction pull their punches, opting for a “be cool, y’all” ethos and the hazy glow of tribute instead of the messy reality that Greene himself reveled in lancing.