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What Hollywood left out of Ray

Review by Lee Sustar | November 12, 2004 | Page 9

Ray, directed by Taylor Hackford, starring Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington and Clifton Powell.

THE MOVIE Ray is a showcase for several talented African American actors who too rarely get the screen time that they deserve--and the music of Ray Charles sounds as fantastic as ever. But this is a Hollywood feel-good movie, so director Taylor Hackford force-fits Ray Charles into a standard formula--the American individual success story.

Certainly the personal story of Ray Charles--who died earlier this year--is compelling. Poverty, racism and the loss of his eyesight at the age of 7 couldn't prevent his genius--that's no overstatement-- from breaking musical boundaries and achieving unimaginable success.

The wonderful child actor C.J. Sanders captures the horror Ray experienced watching his little brother drown--but the film later uses too many gimmicks to revisit the moment, distracting from the cast's work.

What saves the film from these and several other contrivances is Jamie Foxx in the title role. While Foxx has won praise for his ability to capture Charles' well-known mannerisms, he's most compelling in the quiet scenes--such as when he sits silently on the band's bus in a late 1940s tour of the South, ignored as his band mates enjoy themselves gambling.

Foxx conveys Charles' courage to fight and prevail over the music industry parasites who tried to take advantage of his him because of his blindness--and his refusal to accept the narrow options open to Black musicians in the era of Jim Crow segregation. We see Charles' decision not to play a segregated show in 1960s Georgia--and the state legislature's ban on him performing in the state.

This is portrayed as a spur-of-the-moment decision--but in fact Charles was a supporter of the civil rights movement, and donated money to help support activists. The focus of the film is mainly Charles' personal life. It doesn't shy away from Charles' heroin addiction or womanizing, and manages to show the high toll of both without moralizing about either.

Charles' complicated personal life didn't impede his aggressive approach to the music industry--and this is the most consistent theme in Ray. The film shows how Ray Charles, who desegregated music charts as the civil rights movement smashed Jim Crow, became Ray Charles the global enterprise, with Charles as CEO.

He manages to extract from ABC-Paramount Records a deal giving him ownership of his master recordings--a deal "better than Sinatra gets"--and prevents racist cops and politicians from destroying his career. This completes Charles' triumph over music industry racism, from the mobsters and parasites in the "race record" labels of the 1940s and 1950s to the executives of the major labels in New York City.

If hip-hop entrepreneurs like Sean Combs or Russell Simmons are music industry powerhouses today, it's because Ray Charles helped pave the way. It's a class transition full of contradictions--and it's highlighted in the film when Charles fires an old friend, explaining that music is, after all, a business.

Unfortunately, the film ends in the mid-1960s, without examining Ray's life in the decades after he became wealthy. Missing is any sense of how Charles coped with the huge changes in Black popular music--the rise of disco in the 1970s and rap in the 1980s and 1990s.

And why did a man who refused to play segregated shows in the U.S. South decide, some 20 years later, to break the international boycott of racist South Africa? How could someone who gave money to Martin Luther King end up singing "America the Beautiful" at the 1984 Republican National Convention, where Ronald Reagan was nominated for re-election? Was this a reflection of Charles' changing politics, or were such moves--like his role as spokesperson for Pepsi in 1990--strictly business decisions?

Still, there's the music. Ray does convey Charles' incomparable contributions--a man who found the place where gospel, blues, jazz and country intersected, and who crossed the color line to reach a mass audience historically denied to Black musicians. Like Miles Davis and Bob Dylan, Charles' artistry was so compelling that he could take his audiences into entirely new directions--moving from the raw boogie-woogie piano and gospel vocals to country music and back, all encompassed within the soul music he helped invent.

Ray Charles' music of the 1950s and 1960s provided a soundtrack to the collapse of legalized racial segregation in the U.S. At its best, Ray takes us back to that exhilarating time.

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