Jan Chats with Director Kasi Lemmons about her new film ‘Talk to Me’

Jan Chats with Director Kasi Lemmons about her new film ‘Talk to Me’

(First Posted in 2007)

 Kasi Lemmons came to Chicago on Thursday, June 7, 2007, for a “Word-of-Mouth Screening” followed by audience Q&A. The next morning, Jan met with Kasi to discuss TALK TO ME—her film about the relationship between Ralph “Petey” Greene [played by Don Cheadle], an ex-con who became a popular talk show host and community activist, and Dewey Hughes [played by Chiwetel Ejiofor], who was his friend and manager. The movie takes place between May 1966 and January 1984, culminating with the Petey’s Greene’s memorial service.

Jan Lisa Huttner: Kasi, I’ve seen TALK TO ME three times. The second time, I cried even more than the first time. I thought it was wonderful!

Kasi Lemmons: Oh, that’s great. Thank you.

Jan: Marketing people always want “genre” movies, so how were you describing this picture when you were making it: Buddy Movie? BioPic? 

Kasi: African-American Period Drama. When we talked about it, we’d always call it a drama. When I was trying to get the film made, we talked about how it’s hard to make African-American dramas. We never used the word BioPic. The only time I ever used the word BioPic was when I was telling Don Cheadle that it was NOT a BioPic.

Jan: What does the expression BioPic mean to you, and why isn’t this one?

Kasi: A BioPic is a biography. If I were going to do a biography, I would do endless research on who that person was, and that wasn’t what I did at all. I approached TALK TO ME as a movie, because that’s what I was told the producers wanted. One of the first conversations I ever had with them, they said, “We don’t want to do a BioPic. We want it to feel like a movie.” So I looked at the relationship between Petey and Dewey, because my resource was Dewey.

This film, it’s from Dewey’s point of view. It’s a classic movie structure to take a character and say: “This is the life I was living, and then this dynamic person came into my life and I changed.” When you look at the story, Petey doesn’t really change. Petey stays the same. It’s Dewey who has to change, and so that was the story I was going to tell. Dewey has a right to tell his story. 

The script that I got was written by Dewey’s son, but it’s very interesting because when Joe Fries [one of the original producers] was trying to put the project together, he had a list of writers and he showed the list to Dewey. Dewey looked at the writers and pointed to one of the names, Michael Genet, and said: “That’s my son.” Joe said: “We have to get him to the write the script.” And Dewey said: “He doesn’t know the story.” But Michael became very informed about the story.

Jan: That actually answers my husband Richard’s question, because he walked out after seeing TALK TO ME and he said to me: “If it’s a buddy movie, then why isn’t there more Dewey?” You’re saying Dewey is telling a story about Petey, and that makes perfect sense to me.

Kasi: Right. Dewey Hughes was our resource. Dewey informed every department of the film. Not only did he meet with the all actors, he talked to the production designer, the costume designer, etc.

Jan: And the E.G. Sonderling character [played by Martin Sheen], that’s a composite character? 

Kasi: No, there was an E.G. Sonderling. He was real.

Jan: And what about Vernell [played by Taraji Henson]? Is that character real?

  

Kasi: “Vernell” is a composite. Tariji’s awesome. She’s sensationally versatile. I mean when you look at her performance in HUSTLE & FLOW and her performance in this movie, which is exuberant, it’s like champagne that’s bubbled over. That’s the feeling that I wanted to get from Vernell too—it’s like champagne that’s bubbled over and it’s really yummy, but it’s also slightly messy. Do I clean it up or do I just enjoy it?

Vernell is a character who you’re slightly intimidated by, yet drawn to, and Taraji, that was the line that she walked perfectly. You understand when Dewey says to Petey: “Definitely be by yourself when you come to work!” But you’re also drawn to her. There’s a wonderful quality that true stars have when they’re playing a great character—you miss them when they’re not on screen. Taraji has that quality. 

Jan: What amazes me is that for both her characters (“Vernell” here and “Shug” in HUSTLE & FLOW), as different as they are, and for all that life has handed them, even though they both have to camouflage it, there’s so much intelligence in her eyes! 

Kasi: Taraji is a smart lady and she’s a tough cookie. She has a very interesting background. She comes from D.C. and she’s real. She’s a fighter and a winner and a great, great woman, and I love her a lot. I would like to work with her again. She’s one of these actresses who I really believe can do a variety of things—a huge range of things—so I’m always going to be looking for another way to work with her.

Jan: Well I suggested this idea to Bill Condon when I interviewed him about CHICAGO, so now I’ll tell you: There’s a great Bessie Smith story out there waiting to be told. I thought after seeing CHICAGO that it would star Queen Latifah, but now I’m thinking maybe it should star Taraji, because she sang her heart out in HUSTLE & FLOW

Kasi: Now that would be great. She’d be wonderful. 

Jan: We want everyone to understand that TALK TO ME is a really fun movie. I think anyone who liked HUSTLE & FLOW will love this movie. But there’s also a serious part. Last night in the Q&A, when I asked you about the takeaway, you gave a very eloquent answer. Mentally, you’re counterpointing scenes of D.C. in the ‘60s with TV news about Baghdad now, so can you talk again about the importance of people getting their voices back?

Kasi: I read the script several times, different versions of it, different drafts of it, and my opinion about it changed after we got involved in Baghdad. And I read it again because I was frustrated with what I felt was this kind of apathy, but apathy isn’t even a strong enough word—almost impotence, like there’s nothing we can do. I felt that there was an unwillingness to get angry and speak about it. Of course certain people did and were very brave about it. But a lot of people were very cautious because they didn’t want to be labeled.

Jan: Did you see SHUT UP & SING?

Kasi: No, but I’m sure I’d love it. I totally admired the Dixie Chicks and their courage in that whole period. That’s what I was aching for—what the Dixie Chicks did. It takes an awful lot of courage.

I felt that TALK TO ME became a film about a time when change was possible and even revolution was possible. We didn’t know what was going to happen. It was a very devastating time and a very frightening time, but it was alive. It was alive. 

I was about 7 years old when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered, and I remember my mother screaming. That’s my most vivid memory—that my mother, when she heard, she screamed. It’s uncanny to hear your mother scream. It’s an experience I hope my children don’t have. My mother is very dignified and the fact that this sound came out of her—like the world was ending—affected me deeply as a little child.

My big sister was taking me to the movies and we got stopped, we got caught in the Boston riots and separated. My mother didn’t know. All she knew was that we had headed in that direction and she was trying to find us. So I remember it as very, very alive and vivid and scary.

Jan: I hate the people—excuse me, but it’s primarily middle-age white guys—I hate people who try to tell us that nothing changed in the ‘60s. We know as women—and you as an African-American—we know that many things changed in the ‘60s. There is no going back.

Kasi: Absolutely. Yet we’re in this time now that’s really interesting. It’s like passive repression, you know? You feel like: is anything going to change, no matter how loud everybody gets? How much more information can you have about global warming? You know what I mean? 

One of the things that was appealing about this story is that it moves quickly from comedy to tragedy and back again. It’s like life that way—very dynamic. That’s what I was hoping to bring to this movie: one moment you’re very involved in something that the next moment seems trivial. So as a director, that’s about the most fun you can have.

Jan: So the roller coaster feeling, that was intentional on your part?

Kasi: It was one of the things we originally talked about in terms of the movie—that it was energetic, that it was a roller coaster, that it was dynamic, that it was musical. 

Jan: Last question: Please explain what “signifying” is because Petey uses that term a lot and it’s new to me.

Kasi: Bragging and holding forth—type into your computer “the signifying monkey.”

© Jan Lisa Huttner (June 15, 2007)

June 8 interview conducted by Jan Lisa Huttner. Condensed and edited with assistance from Dawn Raftery.

Photos courtesy of Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

JLH ADDENDA

 

Entering “signifying monkey”
into Google, brings us immediately
to this extremely influential
& thought-provoking book by
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.!

 


Kasi Lemmons at the 39th NAACP Image Awards(2/14/08).
Photo Credit: Jerome Pennington/ iPhoto/NewsCom

Kasi Lemmons received 2007’s Best Director award from the African-American Film Critics Association, and in 2008 TALK TO ME received two “Image Awards” from the NAACP: Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture and Outstanding Writing. It was also nominated for Image Awards in the Outstanding Actor, Outstanding Actress, Outstanding Supporting Actor, and Outstanding Motion Picture categories.

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