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Ray [Movie Review]

Summary

Ray is a 2004 Oscar-winning film starring Jamie Foxx in a biopic about the life and career of legendary musician Ray Charles Robinson (better known as Ray Charles). Throughout the film, we see how traumatic moments from Ray’s childhood continued to haunt and impact him as an adult. There is also some insight into his career from the perspective of both its creative milestones and business dealings.

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Show Notes

The film begins with Ray as a young adult trying to get started as a professional musician. He’s been playing the piano for years at this point but lacks connections and is trying to gain entry to the music industry by joining a live band. It can be difficult for any musician who is just getting started on their professional journey but things are further complicated by Ray being blind and Black in the Jim Crow South.

Unfortunately, as with many Black artists of his time and even into the present, Ray was swindled by his handlers. In this case, he was especially vulnerable because of his vision impairment. His early managers Gossie McGee and Marlene collect earnings on his behalf but then brush him off instead of providing an accurate accounting of what is coming in and/or placing money directly in his control.

Marlene is also a low-key Jane in the sense that she allows Ray to stay at her home in exchange for him “servicing her sexual desires.” Not only is this woman controlling his money but she’s also taking sexual advantage of him because she knows that he’s just arrived in town and doesn’t have much. It just felt icky. Not only was she sexually exploiting this young man but she then turned around and also exploited him from a business standpoint.

I remember as a kid that my mom would constantly tell me that I should never lie because liars become thieves. This young man is talented which results in various people trying to latch on to him. Keep in mind that at this point Ray was still just playing live shows, he hadn’t even reached the point of recording. It’s still early in his career but he’s starting to generate money which is making the people around him money. Especially because some of them are taking more than their fair share.

It offers a peek into the reality of what a lot of artists had to and still deal with. Early on in their career, they’re desperate to break into the industry and/or for money. Others recognize their talent or at least the potential for them to be marketable and latch onto them early in their careers. This results in some musicians signing questionable contracts or otherwise entering into unfavorable agreements. Those who aren’t business savvy or financially astute find themselves dealing with the long-lasting ramifications of these early business dealings.

The issue with Gossie and Marlene doesn’t seem to be a matter of them tying Ray up with unfair contract terms. Instead, they’re double-dipping in his money and cutting side deals to enrich themselves. There’s an obvious conflict of interest where the person negotiating deals on Ray’s behalf is also collecting the money. They could tell him whatever is convenient while stealing because there is no unbiased oversight.

Gossie and Marlene saw Ray as a country bumpkin and his naivete as an opportunity to take advantage of him. Fortunately, a friend gives him a heads up early on which helps him realize that his managers are taking advantage of him. This enables him to take steps to remedy the situation.

These two are greedy and foolish at the same time. Ray’s managers had been benefiting from his talent as they collected a share from his touring and performing. They would have been better off giving him his proper share of the money and otherwise treating him fairly. This would have likely resulted in them working with him for a longer amount of time and thus earning more money in the long term.

Granted the entertainment industry can be very fickle so it’s hard to tell how long an entertainer’s career is going to be on the upswing. Their approach was shortsighted but maybe they were trying to grab all that they could while they could. They probably never imagined the degree of success that he would achieve and likely weren’t even looking that far down the road.

While I might not know everyone, I do have some knowledge of the music industry. We meet a very young Quincy Jones portrayed by Larenz Tate but we never hear anything else about the first managers after Ray drops them. They’re also not industry professionals I’ve heard about in real life. It’s likely safe to assume that even if they went on to achieve great things with other artists, they certainly didn’t become household names.

Now traveling and working with a new band, Ray moved closer to the spotlight as he begins to function as the warmup act and later the bandleader. There are examples of some people being compassionate and looking out for Ray because of his inability to see. But yet again, at least in part due to his vision impairment, we see that others are not very kind. Some members of the band view him as a burden because he needs a little bit of help. Though I suspect that some of this ill-treatment was a result of jealousy as some of the musicians saw him trying to move up and make progress.

I remember that during the promotional period for the film Jamie Foxx mentioned speaking with Ray about his experiences as a blind man. People took their ability to see for granted and after sharing a meal or otherwise gathered, the group would sometimes get up and walk away leaving Ray behind. They weren’t necessarily intending to be mean or cruel but because they had all of their senses, they could move about more freely and without having to actively think.

At times Ray felt lonely being in the physical dark of blindness and finding that nobody else around him understood his experience. Here it is that Ray was trying to get his music career started which can be difficult for most people. But going through these negative experiences as a newbie with the added difficulty of impairment made things even more complicated.

To a degree, Ray’s blindness resonated with me because my grandfather’s sister developed vision issues which resulted in her going blind as an adult. My mother’s maternal and paternal sides of the family seem to both suffer from vision issues though thus far I thankfully seem to be unaffected. As a young child, I was absolutely terrified of my great-aunt and would just run away from her so I have very few memories of her.

But in the years since I’ve learned more about how vision impaired and blind people learn to navigate the world and it’s truly incredible and inspiring. Putting aside kids not knowing any better, as humans it’s a benefit to us all to be compassionate and considerate. I don’t understand not being courteous and offering a bit of grace to someone under these circumstances.

It takes time but Ray progresses towards being his own musical entity and moves up to becoming a frontman and later a recording artist. With that, there’s also some discussion of the evolution of his sound. The progression of many creatives is that they begin by taking inspiration from and recreating the things that are already out there. They then start to experiment and create entirely new things on their own. You see Ray finding his voice as a musician and then forming a crew around himself which consists of not just his band but also his business handlers and representatives.

One of the key people to enter Ray’s life is Della Beatrice Howard (Kerry Washington), the woman that would become his wife. It was still several years before Kerry Washington would star in Scandal and become a big name in her own right. At this point, Washington was on a run of appearing in some fairly well-regarded films in which her male co-stars would be nominated for or win notable awards. While the films were critical and/or commercial successes raising Washington’s profile, her roles in the films were typically the wife or partner of the male lead with a thin storyline in comparison. It’s an unfortunate reality of the limited roles and limitations within the roles that are available for a lot of female actresses, especially Black actresses.

In this case, once Ray decides to marry Della who is referred to as “Bea”, she pretty much stays at home and will later take care of their children while he’s out on the road. Bea comes from a religious family and is herself religious, to the point that she objects to Ray taking a gospel song and changing it into a love song. The two meet and begin seeing each other and after a brief separation due to Ray traveling for business, he decides that he wants to marry Bea. This results in a wedding and the two moving in together.

There’s a clear divide between Ray’s home life with his legal wife and his single in everything but name life out on the road. Early on before meeting Bea, Ray is shown to be sleeping around with women after feeling up their wrists to assess their body type and supposed attractiveness. This continues in a sense even after he gets married but becomes arguably more reckless as he begins or at least is now shown to be having affairs with the women in his band.

I will never understand the point of asking someone to marry you if you plan to secretly continue living as a single person. Marriage isn’t for everyone. Why not just remain single and then have entanglements with whomever you want without having to sneak around? It just seems like a lot of unnecessary wasted energy. But then again sometimes people get themselves into these situations because they like having drama in their lives.

It might be convenient but makes absolutely no sense to start sleeping with what are essentially your co-workers or more accurately employees. Being a married man in the public eye who is cheating on his wife is problematic. Musicians, even back then, were notorious for having one-night stands but it’s not like now where everyone has a camera phone and the paparazzi are all about.

Some random woman in a completely different town is one thing. But cheating with women that you have to see and work with every day and who know your wife just seems like you’re asking for trouble. Especially because Ray wasn’t just sleeping with these women but rather seemed to be playing house with them out on the road. They were taking this whole “work husband” and “work wife” nonsense to a whole other level.

The first woman, Mary Ann Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis) shows up for an audition and is singing gospel music and talking about loving the Lord. Minutes later she’s pressed up all types of close to Ray, now singing and swapping spit with him. Not to absolve Ray from his role in this entanglement as he was the one that was married. But Mary Ann knew that he was married and chose to entertain him and his nonsense.

Your married lover is cheating on their spouse and you might be cheating on yourself but your married lover can’t be cheating on you. How do you turn around and get upset that he’s seeing someone else? Why are you surprised that a person who is lying and cheating on their partner is lying and cheating to be with someone aside from you? Aside from delusion, what would make you so special to not receive the same treatment?

And then adding more fuel to this ridiculous fire is the second mistress Margie Hendricks (Regina King). By the time she arrives on the scene, Ray has a wife, a mistress, and who knows how many other women. Mary Ann seems upset about being replaced as the first mistress but not necessarily Ray being married. When she gets fed up and leaves, Margie begins fussing about Ray not leaving his wife and goes so far as to show up in LA.

Ray is not a paragon of virtue. This man is obviously for the streets but here are these women fighting to take him home. It’s all a matter of ego. Typically, I don’t blame the other woman because you never know what the man is telling her. I certainly believe that these women engaged in affairs with Ray. But at the same time, because the story is told from his perspective I take it with a grain of salt. He might have been feeding these women all types of lines and stories giving them the false impression that they could have some kind of a future.

In high school, my mom’s boyfriend who had been a musician in his youth put me on to some old school artists from the 70s and 80s. In college, I branched out a bit more into music especially after reading Dreamgirls by Mary Wilson of The Supremes. I was kind of shocked because these were grown middle-aged to old people by the time I was born. But you wouldn’t believe the drama and entanglements that they had back in their day. People complain about the youth of today but they’re not doing anything new, the only difference is that things are more out in the open.

As with most people, some of the drama and dysfunction in Ray’s life as an adult originated in his childhood. Sure, there’s the physical issue of him losing his sight as a child. But also watching his mother struggle to provide for him and his brother and witnessing the traumatic accidental drowning of his brother.

There are flashbacks to Ray as a child and we see his mother throughout the film. She’s working very hard as a washerwoman to provide for her two sons. At one point Ray mentions that his mother worked herself into an early grave. Yet, we never see his father and I don’t recall there being any mention of him.

Coming of age in Florida during the 1930s to 1940s as not just a Black boy but a blind Black boy is rough. Ray manages to work his way out of the South and heads to big cities in the North with hopes of making a way for himself as a musician. During a conversation with Bea, he explains that as a blind Black man his options were very limited. Music was the thing that his mother recognized as being a skill that he could use to earn a good living and escape from struggling in the South. Where other parents pressed their kids to learn handicrafts or a trade, once he found music Ray’s mother pushed him to pursue that as his path.

Having children after achieving some degree of success motivated Ray to relocate to Los Angeles where he hoped his children could have more and better opportunities. There are relatively few scenes with him and his children and while he interacts with the kids, he doesn’t exactly seem to be a devoted dad. Putting aside that he’s carrying on with women on the road, he is working to support his family and to give them the things that he didn’t have growing up.

I never begrudge a parent doing what they have to do to put food on the table for themselves and their child. But while it seems he financially gave his kids more than his parents were able to give him, it doesn’t seem that he was as present in their lives as his mother was in his. In one instance he promises to pay for his son’s baseball teams’ uniforms and whatever other equipment they might need but won’t be able to attend his son’s baseball event.

Bea points out that while the boy didn’t fuss he is disappointed as he was very much looking forward to his father attending the event. It’s one thing when he’s out of town for work but when he’s in town he should try to make up for his absence by being present. By all means, chase your dreams, pursue your passions, and work to provide for your family but you also have to make time for your family.

People who are creatively inclined tend to use their art as a positive outlet for their thoughts and feelings. Unfortunately, some people whether they are creative or non-creative turn to alcohol, drugs, sex, and other substances or behaviors as a means of coping with or escaping from their thoughts and feelings.

I’m no medical professional but it seems like some people with substance abuse or addictive habits tend to have some kind of underlying mental health issues or have experienced some type of trauma. They turn to these substances and behaviors as an unhealthy means of coping with their problems. In Ray’s case, he’s experienced witnessing his brother’s death, losing his mother, and losing his sight.

These incidents would be traumatic for anyone and Ray is still carrying their effects around with him many years later. He hasn’t dealt with and certainly hasn’t spoken to anyone about the pain and sense of loss that he feels. Instead, he has found incredibly unhealthy but ultimately inefficient means to cope with his pain. Drugs do nothing but add more problems to his life and kick the can of dealing with his inner turmoil down the road.

We might not have all had the same experiences but we’ve all been through things in our lives. When I was a kid, Ray Charles was an old man with a head full of white hair. The only song of his that I knew then was from watching reruns of The Cosby Show and seeing them perform “Night Time Is the Right Time” which I likely didn’t even know was his song. To see this fictionalized account of Ray Charles carrying on as a young man was eye-opening when I first saw it.

Yet, while this is an entertaining film, it’s worth noting that it’s a somewhat simplified and Hollywood version of Ray’s life. That’s not to imply that Ray is presented here as a saint in comparison to who he was in real life.

But rather that some key elements of his life that might have offered more insight into him as a man were glossed over if not excluded from the movie. During this viewing of the film, I noticed that his dad wasn’t around from quite a young age and there’s seemingly no mention of him. While watching, I did a quick Google search about Ray Charles and it turns out there was a whole scandal surrounding his birth.

Ray’s grandmother died when his mother, Aretha Williams, was still quite young. Aretha’s father (Ray’s grandfather) was still alive but for whatever reason was unable to care for Aretha. A co-worker of Aretha’s father and his wife, Bailey and Mary Jane Robinson, informally adopted Aretha and she took the Robinson surname, becoming “Aretha Robinson”.

After living with the Robinsons for a few years, at the age of 15, it was discovered that Aretha was pregnant. Bailey, Aretha’s adoptive father, was also her unborn child’s father. As often occurred when underage girls or unwed women became pregnant, Aretha left Greenville, Florida, and went to stay with family in Albany, Georgia until after she had the baby.

Following the child’s birth, Aretha returned to Greenville with little Ray Charles Robinson and raised the boy with assistance from her adoptive mother, Mary Jane Robinson, who had lost a son of her own. I try not to use profanity on this show so I’ll simply say that continuing to be an absolutely atrocious person, Bailey Robinson abandoned his family (wife, child, and everyone else included) and left town after which he married another woman. Mess.

Aretha had already given birth to George, Ray’s younger brother, by the time Ray turned one. The identity of George’s father was forgotten over the years. It’s unclear if Ray had any contact with Bailey later in his life.

Let’s break that down for a second. Aretha was 15 or maybe 16 when she gave birth to Ray and had a second child less than a year later. So by the age of 17 or 18, Aretha was a single Black woman trying to raise two children in the Jim Crow South with some assistance from Mary Jane but seemingly no help from their father(s). George died in her washtub resulting in tremendous grief at the loss for both her and Ray. And around this time Ray began having vision issues and was completely blind by about the age of seven.

It’s unclear what Aretha’s life was like before her mother passed away but it certainly sounds like life got incredibly hard for her afterward. Already mourning the loss of one child, Aretha made the sacrifice of sending her only remaining son away to attend a school for the blind in hopes of giving him a better life. Ray had to move 163 miles away to St. Augustine where he attended the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind from the age of seven to 14.

According to Google, in the present, this is a 2 ½ hour drive by car so I would assume that back in the late 1930s to early 1940s, this wasn’t a convenient trip without a vehicle. Thus once enrolled, Ray probably spent most of his time at the school and infrequently traveled back and forth. Yet, tragedy would strike again with Aretha dying at the relatively young age of 29.

The glimpses that we see during the movie are rough but the full story is even more heartbreaking. We see and understand Ray’s drive to work hard and insistence on being paid what he’s worth. Unfortunately, we also see him being an absentee dad and a womanizing husband. The examples of being a man and father as provided by his father and likely some of the other men around him were not positive.

Thus he financially provided for his wife and children, enabling Bea to not have to struggle and work as hard as his mother while giving his children the opportunity to attend better schools and get an education. But he didn’t give them the time that they needed as he likely felt the money was enough.

Some of their disagreements around these issues and Ray’s drug use are shown in the film. But the movie seems to imply that Ray and Bea remained married. The reality is that the couple divorced after 22 years due to Ray’s addiction, affairs, and otherwise problematic behavior.

Ray is already a 2 ½ hour movie and it doesn’t get into the deep details of his early life. I understand, this would be an incredibly LONG movie if it delved deeper into his backstory. And I’m not saying it’s what happened here but sometimes when a subject is deeply involved or even just providing approval for a project it might affect what is included or excluded.

As I mentioned, my great-aunt was also blind but lost her vision as an adult. I don’t know if like Ray Charles it was a gradual process but from what I’ve learned she was getting ready for work one day and suddenly couldn’t see. My family is not currently rich nor were they wealthy back then but everyone was/is at least comfortable. My great-aunt had a support system in the form of at least her mother and brother (my grandfather) as well as a local school for the blind where she was able to learn how to adapt to and navigate this new world.

Here it is that you have this young boy whose mother is already struggling financially and emotionally. Aretha might have attended school but likely didn’t get very far. Probably due to life circumstances but also living in the Jim Crow South where education opportunities were limited for Black people. She lost one child and then her only remaining child was dealing with a serious medical issue.

This resulted in her pushing Ray to be independent and self-reliant which she hoped would help him make a comfortable place for himself in the world despite his being blind. In part, a parent’s job is to teach their children the life skills needed for when they become independent adults. Aretha does what she can to teach Ray how to navigate the world but there was only so far that she could personally take him. And so she made the difficult decision to send him away to school in hopes that he would get the help that he needed.

We see Ray as an adult and things aren’t easy for him as it takes some effort for him to navigate the world and he does occasionally require extra assistance. But he is relatively independent and we see the little tips and tricks that he’s learned to make his way through the physical world. And even putting aside his obvious musical talent, Ray’s journey as a human is inspiring.

His womanizing and absenteeism as a father are shown but not fully explored. I think this was in part because of the scandal of his birth but also because it’s influenced in part by a society of patriarchy and sexism. This behavior was especially prevalent and arguably excused at that time (and still to a degree in the present) as being a part of manhood. Thus while these shortcomings are touched on, they’re portrayed as being less a product of his traumatic childhood than his drug use.

We see flashbacks and you get an understanding of his need for independence, drive to control his music, and rightful demand to be paid properly. He reacts strongly to people attempting to take advantage of him, which is completely understandable. We see the demons of guilt and helplessness that he battles but other aspects of his development are left unexplored.

Ray is shown womanizing early on in the film as a single man but it continues even after he gets married. He supposedly loves Bea and you get the impression that his main affairs were just with these two women in his band. Mary Ann cuts ties with Ray but Margie sticks around and becomes pregnant. The movie gives the impression that Ray was married once and had maybe three or four children, two to three with Bea and one with Margie.

But the reality is that Ray had a daughter from a teenage relationship and was briefly married before Bea. He would ultimately have 12 children with ten women. And it’s mentioned that his obsession with women began after he lost his virginity at the age of 12 to a 20-year-old woman. There is a lot to unpack there concerning this generational child sexual exploitation that was experienced by both Ray and Aretha.

The resulting dysfunction is shown but little of it is meaningfully explored. I didn’t do any extensive research but just noticed that there was no mention of his dad and ended up reading a bit more into his backstory on Wikipedia and a few other websites. It became clear that some important life-shaping stuff was just glossed over.

Jamie Foxx did an incredible job in the role and the performances of the other actors in the adult part of Ray’s life were very good. But I didn’t think the acting in some of the scenes depicting Ray as a child was quite as good. Part of it is that some of the flashback scenes, especially later in the film between Ray and Aretha, felt a bit melodramatic.

The acting was great and the story was good but I still feel like this was a bit of a missed opportunity. It’s certainly not a bad movie but it felt like it fell into this trope surrounding tortured creatives and drug use. That’s certainly part of Ray’s story but looking at it almost 20 years later, it feels like the formula of the typical music biopic. Granted, Ray came out in 2004 and several similar movies came after so it’s not a matter of Ray copying or otherwise being unoriginal. It’s more a matter of the film touching on the same topics and issues that other movies in the genre touch on while continuing to leave some aspects unexplored.

Nowadays, they don’t make three or four-hour movies and I don’t know too many people willing to sit through something of that length. But looking at the movie through the lens of the little I learned about his life, I now feel like this can’t be considered the definitive movie about Ray Charles. It’s a good and entertaining movie about him and his life but not THE MOVIE about Ray Charles and his life.

That’s a missed opportunity because Foxx was a very good choice to play Ray Charles. 2004 was a very big year for Jamie Foxx as Collateral and Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story were also released that year. I think that year marked his transition to Hollywood superstar as before that he’d mostly appeared in comedies and movies that weren’t that great. Foxx started as a comedian and is a funny dude but as I believe with good comedians, their knack for timing can help some become very good dramatic actors. While not many dramatic actors are as capable of transitioning to being good in comedic roles.

Like his other roles in 2004, Foxx did a great job portraying Ray Charles. But with Foxx’s acting and a deeper story, the film could have been even better. Foxx is older now and if you decided to remake or create a new version of the Ray Charles story, I don’t know that he’d be able to physically pull it off at this point. Likewise, revisiting the story as a new film would probably only work with a fresh perspective and I feel like most people would think that they already got the full story the first time around.

These kinds of stories need time to unfold and are sometimes better covered in documentaries as I realized much the same with Tina vs. What’s Love Got to Do With It. The fictional story is entertaining and becomes a classic movie but pales in comparison to the deep fact-based documentary. There are layers to human lives, especially given the experiences of some of these notable people. Sometimes movies can only take you so far and a well-produced documentary is needed to do the subject and their life justice.

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