An admiring and often amusing portrait of the late Washington, D.C., radio and TV talkshow host.
With “Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene,” an admiring and often amusing portrait of the late Washington, D.C., radio and TV talkshow host, documaker Loren Mendell (“Bad Boys of Summer”) offers a useful companion piece to “Talk to Me,” Kasi Lemmons’ 2007 dramatic feature based on Greene’s life and career. During the era of repertory revival cinemas, the two pics would have been a natural double bill. These days, however, Mendell’s doc is more likely to appear solo on fest and cable skeds.
Capably narrated by Don Cheadle, who played Greene in Lemmons’ pic, “Adjust Your Color” celebrates its subject as a purposefully outrageous entertainer and social activist, an African-American firebrand whose blunt-spoken rapping, rhyming and raving clearly inspired later generations of hip-hop artists and shock jocks. Chief among the latter: Howard Stern, who appears (wearing blackface!) in one of many choice clips from Greene’s TV show.
From 1967-83, Greene was a D.C. superstar, garrulously lampooning the foibles of both blacks and whites with equal-opportunity gusto and casually peppering his rants with racially charged epithets. At the same time, he preached a gospel of self-reliance and self-determination, frequently referring to his own past as a criminal and drug addict while sounding cautionary notes. (Pic duly notes that he prepared for his career by riffing on the prison PA system while serving time for armed robbery in the early ’60s.)
Greene attracted thousands of loyal fans with his uninhibited antics, and used his influence to help calm the city during violent upheavals in the wake of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King. Ultimately, he achieved such prominence that city government figures — and, occasionally, White House advisers — would routinely appear on TV with him.
“Adjust Your Color” acknowledges that Greene never evolved into a national figure, but suggests that, deep down, he didn’t really want to. (Dewey Hughes, his former manager, recalls how Greene blew off a career-advancing opportunity to appear on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”)
Concise and technically proficient, Mendell’s doc persuasively makes a case for viewing Petey Greene as, at the very least, some kind of local hero.