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‘Adjust Your Color The Truth of Petey Greene’ tells story of iconic D.C. activist

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen M.S.J., Chicago Crusader

He was a pioneer of tell-it-like-it-is radio and television, and now his outsized life story is told with rare footage and interviews. “Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene” tells the story of a man who has been described as the “user of forbidden words.” Greene was a radio and TV personality like no other, a pioneering shock jock and talk show host who took on racism like no one before to become an inspiring voice for understanding.

PETEY GREENE ON the set of his television show in Washington, D.C. 
PETEY GREENE ON the set of his television show in Washington, D.C.

Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle (who portrayed Greene in the 2007 award-winning feature “Talk to Me”) narrates this insightful documentary that explores the life and times of Greene, the bombastic radio DJ-activist who rose to prominence in the 1960s via his groundbreaking show, “Rapping With Petey Greene.” By the 1970s, he was hosting a similar show on TV, “Petey Greene’s Washington,” whose wide range of guests included a young shock jock named Howard Stern – shown here in rare footage wearing blackface and an afro during an interview with Greene. (Stern has called Greene the greatest radio personality of all time.)

Fearless and provocative, Greene galvanized audiences with his frank and often humorous commentaries on topics like race, religion, poverty, sex and corruption. He was unafraid to state truths that others would rather avoid, such as, “People use drugs because drugs is good!” Numerous prominent figures appear in “Adjust Your Color” to pay tribute to Greene’s importance and influence, including sportscaster James Brown, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, former Washington Mayor Marion Barry and actor Robert Hooks, who calls Greene “the ghetto jester, the original rapper.”

Greene was quoted as saying that his grandmother, who raised him after his father and mother were both incarcerated, told him that his mouth would either get him rich or killed. And although he had his own brushes with the law and was discharged from service in the Korean War for doing drugs, as well as did time in the penitentiary, he learned to survive while he was imprisoned. He admonished parents to keep their children going in the right direction, saying that only “fools rush in” to jail and trouble. As Greene achieved more and more acclaim, he was a reluctant guest when his manager Dewey Hughes secured a spot for him on the Johnny Carson show; he stood both Hughes and Carson up.

Sportscaster Brown was quoted as saying that “if anybody came weak with Petey, he would leave them scathed and undressed.” This was illustrated by the unrelenting interview style of Greene, as he interviewed politicians and left no stone unturned while asking them question after question to get them to be real with Greene’s listening public or fall flat on their faces with the discovery of undelivered promises. He also was the first to tell a young activist named Donna Brazile that she would go far in life. The same Brazile who was recently named as the interim DNC Chair, after having had a successful career as a political commentator.

COVER ART FROM “Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene.”
COVER ART FROM “Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene.”

I loved this film as much as I loved the original movie “Talk to Me.” Cheadle was good as the narrator, and the entire Greene story is unveiled in living color. He was quite the character, but he also was such a great influence in the community. After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Greene was needed to calm the crowds of rioters in Washington, D.C. It is revealed that, while he did come into national acclaim, his calling and love was for the people of D.C., and he would just as soon be happy staying at home and rallying for causes that were important to them, as opposed to traveling and doing television appearances.

The real story of the shocking host who inspired the acclaimed feature “Talk to Me” is now available on digital platforms and DVD from Virgil Films. “Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene,” written and directed by Loren Mendell (“Bad Boys of Summer”), was originally broadcast on PBS’ acclaimed series “Independent Lens.” It’s an invaluable reminder of the power of speaking the truth loud and clear.

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