Where is the line between the sacred and the secular? Does a clear line define when a person has moved into the area of the profane? What is the nature of religion?
These questions are raised in the wonderful biopic “Ray,” which tells the story of musical genius Ray Charles. Jamie Foxx plays Ray, and he fully embodies the struggles of a man who seems twice cursed: He is both blind and African-American in the latter days of Jim Crow America.
When Ray loses sight at the age of 7, his mother (Sharon Warren) teaches him how to live in the world. Her life is hardscrabble, and she knows that the world is not going to do any favors, especially for a blind African-American. She makes Ray promise not to let anyone make him a cripple. The movie returns to her lessons and the events of Ray’s childhood at crucial times in the story.
When Ray begins to make his living in music, he decides to do so by simply pleasing other people. He mimics the popular Nat King Cole, but his mimicry doesn’t show his genius. However, Ray finds a patron in Atlantic Records President Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong), who tells Ray to follow his own muse.
Ray begins to play the music within his soul. It’s gospel, but with secular lyrics. Instead of singing of his love for the Lord, Ray sings of his love for a woman. This proves to be a two-edged sword: Ray finds his muse and shows his genius, but he becomes criticized for taking the Lord’s music into the gutter.
“Ray” is a wonderful movie, and it reveals the genius of an American original. As a film biopic, some events in his life are necessarily shortchanged, but any omissions don’t overshadow the movie.
Jamie Foxx gives an Oscar-worthy performance. He does not imitate Ray; he becomes Ray. The mannerisms, the voice, the walk are all there, and they alone are worth the price of a ticket.
Sharon Warren, who plays Ray’s mother, also gives a tremendous performance. As a mother who knows her time on earth is short, she works hard to convey lessons her son needs to know. In one particularly fine scene, young Ray—after he has gone blind—falls. He calls for his mother, who is standing in the next room, but she doesn’t move. She restrains herself to wait and see what her son will do. That scene, of tears falling from a mother for a child she empowers by restraint, is one of the best scenes you will see in a movie this year.
In the end, “Ray” is a fine example of a life lived in pursuit of a dream. It is a real life with falls and triumphs, victories and setbacks. It lets us know that if we hold to what we believe and be ourselves, we can overcome.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for depiction of drug addiction, sexuality, and some thematic elements.
Director: Taylor Hackford
Writer: James L. White
Cast: Ray Charles: Jamie Foxx; Della Bee Robinson: Kerry Washington; Margie Hendricks: Regina King; Fathead Newman: Bokeem Woodbine; Aretha Robinson: Sharon Warren; Ahmet Ertegun: Curtis Armstrong.
The movie’s official Web site is here.