Movie Review



Production Company: Universal Pictures
Director: Taylor Hackford
Principles: Jamie Foxx, Regina King, Kerry Washington, Richard Schiff, Aunjanue Ellis
Rating: PG-13 for scenes of drug use, sexual situations and language.

By Gregg Tubbs

(UMCom) -- Ray Charles was a true American original—a groundbreaking musical innovator who also broke down barriers in society. As Charles, Jamie Foxx scores a knock-out, nailing the musician’s voice and mannerism, while digging deep into his soul to show us the courage and personal demons of the man behind the legend.

Director Taylor Hackford’s Ray is as riveting as the man it explores, pulsing with passion, anger, humor and best of all, music. Hackford also had an expert advisor—Charles himself, before his death earlier this year. The fact that Charles collaborated on this unvarnished view of his life tells us something about the heart of the man, and the honesty that he would develop later in life. But as we see in the film, honesty was not always among his strongest traits.

Aretha Robinson (Sharon Warren) reassures her son, Ray (C.J. Sanders), as he begins to lose his sight. Copyright © 2004 Universal Pictures
The life of Charles was filled with enough drama to inspire three films. First would be the life of a genius and trailblazer who defied musical conventions—and music business executives—to allow his unique vision to blossom into a body of work that crossed over into multiple genres, from jazz and soul, to blues, pop, gospel and even country. As a singer, producer and pianist he became a genre unto himself.

The second film would be about a man, disadvantaged by both society and nature, whose courage and will to survive conquered all obstacles. He was poor, black and blind, at a time in America when any one of those usually meant closed doors and exploitation. When he was just six, he faced a double tragedy. He witnessed the drowning of his younger brother, and glaucoma stole his sight. But his mother allowed no self-pity, making her young son promise that he would let nothing "make him a cripple." Ray kept that promise—growing up tough, smart and nearly ruthless in looking after himself.

Jamie Foxx as American legend Ray Charles with backing musicians and the Raelettes. Copyright © 2004 Universal Pictures
The third film would be about the human weakness of an outwardly great man—weaknesses that were nearly as great as his many gifts. While keeping his promise to his mother that he would stand on his own two feet, he could often be selfish and inconsiderate of others, including loved ones and professional collaborators who helped him reach the top. He carelessly shed musicians, backup singers and supportive record executives to suit the needs of his ambition. He also indulged in enough infidelities for his long suffering wife to be in line for sainthood.

But his greatest weakness and steepest hurdle was heroin. The habit, developed to fill the void of long, lonely hours on the road, and dull the pain of his brother’s death, became a 20-year addiction that threatened to ruin his career and marriage by the time he had reached his peak. Nowhere else in the film do we get a more inspiring picture of the man than when he goes into detox, refusing other medications, determined to break his vicious habit cold-turkey. He emerges, changed, renewed and, in a sense, spiritually whole.

Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx) is arrested for heroin possession. Copyright © 2004 Universal Pictures
Ray’s biggest struggles seem to center on questions of honesty. While he demands total honesty from those around him, from his musical partners to his patient wife, he feels that he himself is free of the obligation to be honest in return. Like many who can’t own up to their bad behavior, he blames God. "God made me blind, so I figure we’re even," he declares. Only after suffering and self-examination does he admit his dishonesty. His blindness is not a moral free pass, and the God who he blames also blessed him with tremendous gifts and the will that sustained him through many hardships. He also realizes his inability to be honest about his own weaknesses and shortcomings made him the cripple—an emotional cripple—that he promised his long dead mother he would never become.

Most of us were not born with the artistic gifts of a Ray Charles, but we all were gifted with the same potential of the soul. We can see in Ray the potential we all have for courage, perseverance, strength of conviction, and most importantly, the ability to see our flaws and try to change. Music may be at the heart of this great film, but Ray himself is its deeply human soul.

Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.

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