‘Ray’ Offers a Complex Portrait Of The Musician
Published: November 11, 2004
The new film “Ray,” directed by Taylor Hackford, uses humor, drama, and plenty of powerful music to effectively tell the story of how Ray Charles overcame personal hardship and addiction to establish himself as one of the foremost musical icons of the 20th century.
It is no exaggeration to say that the entire film rests on the shoulders of actor Jamie Foxx, and he delivers a pitch-perfect performance. Foxx seems to become Ray Charles; he successfully adopts the musician’s trademark walk, voice, charm and mannerisms without turning the performance into a caricature. Considering that Charles was one of the most familiar figures in popular music, amazingly it never feels as though we are watching an actor pretending to be Ray Charles. In addition to being entirely believable in the role, Foxx goes beyond mere impersonation to deliver an extremely affecting performance as a man who seems very alone in the world, even when surrounded by crowds of people.
The film focuses on the early years of Ray Charles’s career, with several flashbacks to his childhood. It shows how he learned to blend a variety of musical styles to create his own innovative sound, and it portrays many of the struggles he faced both as a blind man and as a black man in the segregated South. Although the film shows his many personal triumphs, it also illustrates his weaknesses, most notably his addiction to heroin and his adultery. What emerges is a portrait of a man who is emotionally guarded and mistrustful, someone who has a hard time letting anyone get truly close to him, even his wife and best friend.
An explanation of Ray’s situation is provided through a series of flashbacks. In scenes from his very early career, we see how people tried to take advantage of him because of his blindness and tried to discriminate against him because of his race. Most importantly, the film presents scenes from his childhood, in which he witnesses his younger brother drowning and later begins to go blind. He has a very poignant relationship with his mother, who strives to do what little she can for young Ray. She teaches him to be self-reliant, refuses to let his blindness be a handicap and sends him off to school for an education. These flashbacks provide dimension to the story and are some of the most appealing scenes in the film.
“Ray” does a wonderful job of evoking a particular time in American history. From the muted tones and smoky ambience of a jazz bar in Seattle to the stifling heat of a band bus traveling through the South to the sun-drenched colors of an affluent California mansion, the film convincingly illustrates the sights and sounds of 1950s America. Overlaying everything is the marvelous music of Ray Charles, including his early work covering Nat King Cole, his first soul recordings and his heartbreaking rendition of “Georgia.”
The performances in “Ray” are compelling as well. In addition to Foxx, Kerry Washington is a standout as Ray’s long-suffering wife Della Bea, who learns to accept her husband’s betrayals. Clifton Powell, so frightening in “Woman, Thou Art Loosed,” is entirely sympathetic here as Ray’s good-guy friend and tour manager, Jeff Brown. Aunjanue Ellis and Regina King play Mary Ann Fisher and Margie Hendricks, respectively, two of Ray’s backup singers and mistresses. Both are passionate and strong-willed, and their characters illustrate how destructive Ray’s habits could be. Finally, Sharon Warren gives a powerful and touching performance as Ray’s mother, Aretha, who had to teach her son to be independent even when it was painful.
The film portrays Ray Charles as a complex man who lives by his own code of ethics, eternally governed by the idea of self-reliance. He is not shown following any organized religion, but he does read the Bible and clearly loves gospel music. In fact, he is accused of being blasphemous for bringing a gospel style to rhythm and blues music. He is shown accepting or circumventing racism in his own life but eventually takes a stand against segregated shows in Georgia. His ability takes him far in the music world, but his single-mindedness distances him from his wife and his best friend. At the climax of the movie, his refusal to listen to what he does not want to hear almost costs him everything when his addiction to heroin spins out of control.
Although Ray Charles is presented as a man who is often difficult, the film demonstrates, in a wonderfully entertaining way, his courage to use his talent to the best of his ability and to consistently challenge himself in the face of adversity.