NOTE: This spoiler was sent in by P.D. Chamblisswho also writes... "Before there was Howard Stern, Wendy Williams or even the term “Shock Jock”, there was Petey Greene…and Don Cheadle is stellar in this biopic of the radio personality from Washington, D.C."
When the movie opens, Ralph “Petey” Greene is spinning records and talking to Lorton prisoners via the airwaves as the prison’s disc jockey. Petey has a gift for gab, enjoys the music he plays (Sam Cooke, James Brown especially) and has made several friends who respect him and admire his skills. One of those friends is Milo Hughes (Mike Epps). Meeting Milo is fortuitous for Petey. Milo is the brother of Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Production Manager at station WOL radio in Washington, D.C.
Dewey has a serious problem at work: the ratings at WOL radio have been dropping and statistics show WOL is out of touch with its targeted market. The demographics of WOL have shifted: while the elite of Washington, D.C. buy WOL advertising, they are not listening to WOL’s programs and boosting the ratings. In addition, the urban market is listening but not enthusiastic because the programming does not touch on serious issues impacting the African-American community.
Milo talks to Dewey and tells Dewey it would be a good idea to hire Petey since Petey is in touch with the “sounds of the street”. Milo asks his brother to give Petey an opportunity at station WOL once Petey is released. Dewey is not interested in Milo’s suggestions for two reasons. First, Dewey sees his brother as an incarcerated loser. Dewey only visits Milo to keep a promise to their mother don’t abandon Milo in prison. Second, Dewey wants nothing to do with Petey who appears to be loud, angry and unpolished on the airwaves the exact opposite of what WOL tries to attract in listeners.
Dewey’s contempt for Petey (and criminals in general) is evident one day while Dewey is visiting Lorton to see Milo. Milo attempts to introduce Petey to his brother Dewey. Dewey rejects Petey calling him a “miscreant”. Petey takes it as a compliment laughing off the insult. Petey states he wants a job working at WOL and Dewey states Petey’s nothing but a criminal who is still in prison. Petey sees being in prison as a minor obstacle (important later). Dewey sarcastically says to Petey “look me up when you get out” (important later).
Dewey underestimates Petey’s talent and ability to “work the system” in prison to get what he wants - release. One day, a prisoner named “Poochie” (Richard Chevolleau) seems to go bananas at Lorton. Poochie climbs to the top of a tower and starts screaming obscenities about the warden’s small private parts. While the warden (Peter MacNeill) is outraged and embarrassed, the prison guards have no idea of how to handle the drama because they cannot reach Poochie on top of the tower. In addition, shooting Poochie would cause a riot and scandal. Poochie starts to scream “I want Petey Greene…I won’t come down unless I talk to Petey Greene”.
The warden calls in Petey to mediate the dispute but the warden has to promise something in return (important later). The warden whispers in Petey’s ear the promise he will keep if Petey makes Poochie come down from the tower. Petey steps forward and tells Poochie he’s making a fool of himself and Poochie should come down or Petey “WILL CALL POOCHIE’S MOTHER”! The seemingly hard-core prisoner suddenly becomes afraid at the mention of someone calling his MOTHER and the warden almost passes out from embarrassment (hysterically funny moment)!
The warden cannot believe he made a serious promise to Petey based on getting Poochie to come down and all it took was the mention of Poochie’s mother! Later we learn Petey was the one who actually talked the prisoner into going up the tower in the first place (very funny)! As a result, the warden had to keep his word: he promised to release Petey from prison and Petey goes to WOL to make sure Dewey delivers on what Petey understands as a job offer (i.e. looking Dewey up). The results are chaotic. Petey arrives at WOL with his girlfriend Vernell (scene stealer Taraji P. Henson) a wild and sassy woman who wears flamboyant clothing with high heels (think of Peg Bundy from “Married with Children” with an afro) and loves Petey in spite of his flaws (important later).
Vernell walks in and squeals with delight at everything she sees. In addition, Vernell is a SUPER fan of WOL’s personality “Nighthawk” (Cedric the Entertainer). Nighthawk is a silky-voiced dj (sounds like Barry White) who sweet talks the female listeners and plays soulful music. Although in love with Petey, Vernell cannot resist the sultry sounds of Nighthawk which makes Petey a bit jealous.
Petey and Vernell bypass security and demand WOL’s very prim and proper secretary (Alison Sealy-Smith) announce Petey’s arrival. The secretary resists and Petey insults her (suggesting she really needs to have sex regularly so she’s not so uptight). Dewey and the station’s manager E.G. Sonderling (veteran actor Martin Sheen) overhear the commotion and come to the lobby. Mr. Sonderling yells “what in blue blazes is going on” (which becomes a running joke because Petey and Vernell begin to refer to Sonderling as ‘Blue Blazes’). Petey says he is ready to work and Dewey is amazed saying he never promised Petey a job and throws Petey out. Petey gets upset but is determined to not give up. Vernell decides to get what she came for since she’s about to be thrown out too (she goes to Nighthawk while he’s on the air and kisses him)!
Once again, Dewey has underestimated Petey. Petey does not take rejection quietly. Petey (in touch with urban issues) organizes people within the community to protest WOL. A young, African-American man has been shot and killed by police and the radio airwaves are silent about the fact while the African-American community is simmering. Petey shows up at WOL with a few protesters and is ignored. Petey returns the next day with more protesters and the following day with more. Dewey wants Petey to go away so Dewey offers to meet Petey at a local pool hall (important later).
It is at the pool hall that viewers really begin to understand the interesting relationship Petey and Dewey will have for the next decade. Petey has always viewed Dewey as a spoiled, privileged African-American who is out of touch with the African-American community. Petey insults Dewey words labels such as “sell-out”. Petey challenges Dewey to a game of pool with a wager of $500. In addition, if Petey wins, Petey will work for WOL. If Petey loses, Petey will go away quietly. Dewey accepts the wager and tosses in an additional $100 bucks if Petey can sink the first ball. With Vernell watching and encouraging Petey, Petey CHOKES…
At this point, Dewey steps up and finally gets Petey’s attention. Dewey tells Petey he is not and never was “a sell-out”. Slowly and surely Dewey sinks ball after ball while lecturing Petey (to the amazement of Petey, Vernell and the rest of the pool hall). Dewey proceeds to straighten out Petey’s misconceptions about Dewey by saying “you assumed because I’m African-American, speak proper English and dress in a certain manner, I’m NOT in touch with the African-American community”…I was born in the Anacostia projects (a very poor housing development in Washington, D.C.). Petey is speechless.
Dewey proceeds to shock Petey by telling him “you were too busy telling me I’m a sellout that you never asked why I would want to meet you at a pool hall…I bet it never occurred to you that I once hustled guys just like you”! ! !
Shock and embarrassment settles in for Petey. However, Dewey really isn’t as tough as he seems. Dewey gives Petey his $500 back and tells Petey to 1) show up for work tomorrow at WOL and 2) be ALONE (i.e. without Vernell)!
Petey shows up and his first day is a disaster. Petey gets sick and has to calm down in the restroom. Dewey coaches Petey to “just be yourself”. Petey relaxes and starts to “let it rip” the way he did while in prison. Petey starts to insult Barry Gordy (founder of Motown) by calling him a thief and pimp. Mr. Sonderling is outraged and dismisses Petey after Petey is forced to apologize. Dewey is speechless.
Petey goes back to the poolhall and Dewey goes to have a drink to relax. When Dewey goes to the bar, Dewey overhears several men discussing WOL’s program. The men completely agree with everything Petey said on the air. In addition, the men like Petey’s direct, brash “tell it like it is” style. Dewey realizes he was on the right track (bringing Petey aboard…Petey just needs to be coached a bit more). It soon becomes a recurring theme: Dewey does the things Petey WANTS to do (reach a larger market on the airwaves) and Petey says the things Dewey wants to say (Petey can be politically incorrect because he’s telling the truth people on the streets want to hear).
Dewey goes to find Petey at the pool hall again. Dewey apologizes and gives Petey another chance. Dewey sneaks Petey into WOL and gives Petey the morning rush hour timeslot. Of course, pure comedy erupts because “Sunny Jim” (Vondie Curtis-Hall) is the dj who has the time slot. Sunny Jim is a friendly, non-controversial radio personality who is out-of-touch with the changing times. Dewey goes to Sunny Jim’s office to offer him a cup of coffee and Dewey locks Sunny Jim in his office!
Dewey helps Petey into the radio booth and locks the door. By the time Mr. Sonderling and the rest of the staff discover Petey’s on the air, it’s too late. Petey has unleashed a tirade insulting President Nixon and laughs about his theft of White House china. Petey then provides WOL’s number and says he wants to talk to listeners. Mr. Sonderling instructs the office secretary to call the police but she cannot the listeners have jammed the phone lines saying they love Petey. Mr. Sonderling changes his mind about having Petey escorted from the property. Petey finally gets a contract with WOL…
Petey’s rise to fame is meteoric. The public loves him and Petey has lots of influence. However, fame has a price and Petey’s weaknesses begin to surface: wine, women and self-doubt. One day, Petey sees a beautiful woman and can’t resist sleeping with her. Vernell arrives home early and a fight erupts. Vernell grabs a wine bottle and hits Petey over the head threatening to castrate him with the broken bottle. The other woman leaves and Vernell throws Petey out of HIS apartment although they share it as a couple. Petey goes to Dewey’s home COMPLETELY NAKED and begs to stay until he patches things up with Vernell. In the middle of the night, Petey is drunk and sings love songs until Dewey wakes up. Petey’s heart is broken and he wants to go back to Vernell. Although he cheated, he still loves Vernell saying he “was in prison for about 10 years and didn’t have access to women…he just could not resist a beautiful one”. Dewey tells Petey to give Vernell a chance to cool off and she’ll take Petey back eventually. Dewey helps Petey go back to bed and discovers Petey’s secret: Petey has numerous wine bottles hidden under the bed. Dewey discards the bottles knowing he has to keep an eye on Petey since he’s an alcoholic.
Meanwhile, Vernell is still upset over Petey’s cheating with the other woman. Vernell seeks revenge by showing up at WOL and throwing Petey’s clothes in the lobby. In addition, Vernell goes into the radio booth while Nighthawk is on the air. Petey arrives for work and discovers Vernell has thrown his clothes in the lobby of WOL. In addition, Vernell emerges from Nighthawk’s booth saying “NOW WE’RE EVEN”!
Petey attacks Nighthawk in a jealous rage and WOL erupts in chaos.
In a midst of the chaos, Mr. Sonderling walks to the lobby and is clearly disturbed by a telegram he has received. The telegram reports the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Petey and Nighthawk stop fighting and stare at each other in disbelief. The entire radio station begins to mourn the loss the M.L.K. Sonderling asks Petey to go on the air and Petey begins to talk about Dr. King and what he meant to the nation. Lots of outraged listeners call in and want bloodshed due to King’s murder but Petey tells them that’s not the proper response to the tragedy. As Petey is leaving the station at the end of his shift, Dewey goes with Petey. Petey and Dewey see the streets have erupted in violence. Stores have looted and people have been beaten in the streets. Petey and Dewey intervene as a white male is being beaten by a mob. Petey tells Dewey he has to go back to the studio to get on the air. Petey knows listeners value his opinions and he wants to stop the rioting.
Petey goes back to the studio and tells listeners to stop the rioting. In addition, Petey announces a free James Brown concert in Washington for the following night. Petey says he will be there too. Petey shows up at the concert a bit late after heavy drinking. The crowd was getting out of control but starts to calm down after Petey greets them. The concert begins and Washington, D.C. is a bit calmer thanks to Petey’s intervention.
Petey receives numerous awards due to his civic activities and Dewey plans big steps for Petey. Dewey wants Petey to go on the Johnny Carson show. Petey does not want to do this but agrees just to make Dewey happy. Vernell knows this is a big mistake and tells Dewey not to push Petey into something Petey does not want.
Petey goes to New York and has a mental meltdown. He panics at the thought of becoming a national celebrity. When Petey takes the stage on the Carson show, he tells the audience they’re “not ready for P-town” (a slang reference to Petey’s brash, in-your-face style of comedy, etc). Dewey flips out and punches Petey in the mouth saying “you had it in your hands…EVERYTHING”. Dewey sees Johnny Carson as the epitome of radio and television success and everything Dewey has ever achieved has been based on mimicking Johnny Carson. Dewey basically has a nervous breakdown because he has seen his dream crumble in front of his eyes (Petey was supposed to be the vehicle to launch Dewey into big time radio and tv stardom). Dewey’s fight with Petey lands them in jail. This is an irony Petey points out to Dewey. Dewey detests criminals by calling them “miscreants” but Dewey’s actions (punching Petey in the mouth) landed them in jail. Thus, Petey points out Dewey must be a “miscreant” too!
Vernell arrives and posts bail. Dewey and Petey part ways refusing to speak to one another for quite some time. Petey stays out of the spotlight while Dewey makes an attempt to establish his own radio career in front of the mike. Eventually, Vernell goes to see Dewey and says Petey and Dewey should patch things up. Petey and Dewey really love each other like brothers but have a difference of opinion on where they want to go careerwise. Both men are too proud to say “sorry” and they should not spend anymore time apart Vernell says.
Dewey goes to see Petey at the pool hall once again. While playing pool again, Dewey discovers Petey has a terrible cough. Petey has been smoking heavily for years in addition to heavy drinking. Petey and Dewey re-establish their friendship and old disagreements are forgiven. In addition, Dewey goes to sees his brother Milo at Lorton. Milo is still in prison serving a life sentence. This time Dewey is less judgmental of his brother and visits because he really cares about his brother not because their mom wanted Dewey to visit. Petey has had a significant impact on Dewey telling him “time is too short”.
Petey dies several months later but the end credits show Dewey went on to make a significant impact in the radio and television business which continues today.
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