Mixing gritty newsreel footage, present-day interviews, and newly discovered archival tapes from the TV show Petey Greene’s Washington, Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene (narrated by Don Cheadle) captures the tumultuous era when America’s melting pot was bubbling over and media paradigms were shifting.
A heavy drinker and small-time drug dealer, Petey was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 10 years at Lorton Reformatory in 1960. The story would have ended there, save for Petey Greene’s gift for gab. While in prison, Petey was allowed to speak to his fellow inmates over the public address system. His fast-talking, animated delivery, infused with street jive, was a big hit with prisoners and guards alike — the latter found Petey so entertaining that they refused to let him be paroled, even though he was eligible.
Foreshadowing his later showmanship, Petey convinced a young inmate to climb a water tower in the prison yard and threaten suicide. As pre-arranged, Petey talked the man down in just minutes, remarking afterwards, “It took me six months to get him to go up there.” Petey’s contrived act of heroism earned his release in 1965.
Dewey Hughes, program director for Washington, D.C. radio station WOL-AM, heard Petey’s prison show while visiting his brother at Lorton Reformatory. After Petey’s release, Dewey rolled the dice by hiring the ex-convict, whose show Rapping with Petey Greene was an immediate hit with the large urban community.
The public access show, Petey Greene’s Washington, which began with Petey’s signature, “Adjust the color of your television,” soon followed and was picked up nationally by the fledgling Black Entertainment Television (BET), eventually garnering two Emmy Awards.
When riots erupted after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Petey waded into the fray to calm tempers and stop the destruction of property. Petey was so respected that he didn’t need protection of any kind as he soothed tempers, quelled unrest first on the street ,and later on the airwaves.
From a man nearly destroyed by crime, drugs, and poverty to an admired media icon and honored guest at Jimmy Carter’s White House, Petey defied labeling. With his patois of street talk, Bible citations, rhyming rap, and quotes from his grandmother and African American poets, Petey Greene was unique. His legacy lives on, 25 years after his death, in the outrageous banter of today’s shock jocks, who consciously or unconsciously emulate the man who lit up the Washington, D.C. airwaves for almost two decades.
- Loren MendellDirector
- Joe FriesProducer
- Bob DeMarsProducer