Ray (2004)

Rated R. Our ratings: V-2; L-5 ; S/N-6

My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.
Psalm 45:1

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.
Galatians 6:7-8

When all the prisoners of the land are crushed under foot, when human rights are perverted in the presence of the Most High, when one’s case is subverted—does the Lord not see it?
Lamentations 3:34-36

Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them, Ecclesiastes 4:1

Taylor Hackford (director of another successful biopic, La Bamba) brings us a masterful depiction of American icon Ray Charles. James L. White’s screenplay seamlessly moves back and forth in time to show how as a boy two traumatic influences helped shape him, along with a strong-willed mother who would not let her boy give up on life, regardless of its cruelty. The first was the horror of watching the younger brother whom he adored drown in a washtub. Little Ray was so shocked by what was happening that he stood by helplessly as his brother suffocated. Shortly thereafter Ray went blind, but far from coddling him, his mother (Sharon Warren) pushes him into the world, teaching him to use his ears to “see.” He learns to play the piano from an old musician at the local juke joint, and by the age of 16 he sets out from his home in rural Florida, confident that he can make his way despite his double handicap—of being blind and of being black.

Jamie Fox is flawless as the older Ray Charles, from his teen days through his seventies. Look for his name to be included in the Oscar nominations. In the Seattle music scene Ray becomes friends with fellow musician Quincy Jones. When the young pianist gets his chance, he is soon on the road playing “The Chitlin,” or “Negro Circuit” throughout the South. As his musical talents develop, we see his romance and troubled marriage with Della Charles (Kerry Washington), as well as his long-time affair with back-up singer Regina King (Margie Hendrix), chronicled in all their beauty and ugliness. We see some of the betrayals by those taking advantage of his blindness, and Ray’s savvy in demanding that he be paid in one dollar bills—he can count, but he cannot see whether or not the bill really is a five, as claimed.

This warts and all film (though much is softened, such as the fact that Ray fathered not one, but a dozen illegitimate children) also depicts Ray’s drug addiction, threatening both his music and his relationships—and in good Hollywood fashion, that was actually true to life, Ray’s come-back and restoration to his wife and the son he had neglected. Ray’s ruthlessness is also shown, when he dropped the two record producers, who had nurtured his career and stood by him, because he was offered a better deal by a larger company—his hard-ball negotiating won him control over the master tapes of his recording sessions. (Not even Sinatra has that right, one of the surprised record executives exclaims—but he gives in.)

Music lovers will love the succession of Ray’s hits—I Got a Woman,” “What’d I Say,” “Unchain My Heart,” “Hit the Road, Jack,” “Georgia on My Mind,” and many more. His blending of his familiar church music with country and rock created a storm of protest at times, his wife being one of the first to raise an objection to his blurring the line between sacred and profane. VP readers probably will be more interested in the role Ray Charles played in protesting segregation. According to the film, which no doubt telescoped his actual development, Ray had avoided thinking much about Jim Crow until the time, during one of his concert tours in 1979 that brought him to Augusta, Georgia, when Civil Rights protestors picketed the segregated theater he was scheduled to play in. A C-R leader refused to accept Ray’s claim that he could not do anything about conditions. When told he could refuse to play a segregated venue, Ray, obviously brought to a new awareness, stops and tells his crew to go back to their bus. The angry white manager, threatening to sue Ray, does not dissuade the musician. True to his word, the white man does bring suit of breech of contract, this leading to the Georgia State Legislature’s banning from the state the author/composer of “Georgia On My Mind.”

The film’s conclusion seems very rushed, almost tacked on—but then the film is two and a half hours long. However, I would not want any of it cut, so maybe there will be a longer director’s DVD version. Lovers of music and social justice will not want to miss this inspiring film

For Reflection/Discussion

1) Although Ray Charles dominates the film, there are many other strong and interesting characters as well. Which ones stand out in your mind?

2) What do you think of the way in which Ray’s mother dealt with him and his blindness? Compare her to Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker.

3) How do some of the characters, including Ray, use each other?

4) What events in Ray Charles’ life bears out the apostle Paul’s warning to the Galatians?

5) How did the oppressive Jim Crow system essentially carry on the tradition of slavery? How is Ray’s decision akin to Thoreau and Gandhi’s call to the oppressed to refuse to cooperate with an evil system? Where do you see evil still entrenched in our society? How or what can you and your church do about it?

6) What do you think about the objections to Ray’s mixing church sounds with secular music? Is there a hard line between sacred and secular? Such as when a converted musician stops singing “worldly music” to sing only “for the Lord”? Do you think that in singing a romantic love song the singer can also be praising God? (See the biblical Song of Solomon for some insight here. Why was there opposition to its being included in the canon, and what were the reasons offered in favor of it?)