I hope Jamie Foxx has a nice Oscar-sized spot dusted off on his mantle, because if there’s any justice in the world, he’ll be going home with a statuette next February. His starring performance in Ray, a biography of Ray Charles by director Taylor Hackford, is gripping from the start. It’s not just the dazzling grin, not just the swaying head and tottering walk, but most of all the voice–a little higher and faster than you’d expect, with a hint of a stutter. Every time he speaks there’s a jolt of energy, and it always comes as a surprise. This delicate voice communicates a sense of Charles’s vulnerability; he is essentially a private man moving through a dangerous world, trying to hold himself together.
And Foxx brings it off without the use of an actor’s greatest resource, his eyes. Shielded by sunglasses or glued shut with prosthetics, Foxx’s eyes are never seen until a dream sequence toward the end (which, unfortunately, falls flat). Acting without eyes is the equivalent of boxing with one arm tied behind your back, and Foxx deserves special praise for this achievement.
But he had to do it with the other arm tied behind his back too because, frankly, this is not a very interesting story. Ray Charles was a quiet, private man. He wasn’t a crazy artist type, emotive and unpredictable (compare Amadeus or Man in the Moon). Apart from the terrific musical sequences, which Foxx lip-synchs to perfection, the basic material doesn’t provide much to work with.
Take, for example, a scene where Charles is walking up a ramp toward the stage door for a performance in Augusta, Georgia. The event is “Jim Crow,” and tickets were sold only to whites. A large crowd of protesters has gathered, and a young man calls out to Ray that he should cancel the show. Charles tells him softly that this is just the way things are and “There ain’t nothing I can do about it.” Then the event host guiding him, a generic fat white man in a hat, makes a nasty remark. Charles turns around and tells his band to get back on the bus. He will not perform. The host tries to argue with him, but Charles says, “There ain’t nothing I can do about it.”
You could call this restrained, or you could call it passive, but one thing you can’t call it is dramatic. And this scene is the high point of any reference to racism, which Charles surely must have encountered more than once.
Perhaps scenes like these could have contributed toward a view of Charles as long-suffering, but-even with Charles as adviser on this 15-year project, and no doubt exerting a sanitizing influence–it seems that it was the other people in his life who did the suffering. Despite the script’s adulation, it’s hard to admire Charles. He sleeps around with groupies, fondling a forearm to judge beauty, rejecting with a grimace a girl whom he perceives as fat. He marries a gospel singer, Della Bea Robinson (Kerry Washington) and has sons with her, but launches into a steamy affair with singer Mary Ann Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis), and then cheats on her with singer Margie Hendricks (a fine peppery performance by Regina King). When Hendricks reveals she is pregnant, he casually recommends abortion, which drew gasps from the audience around me. Hendricks proclaims that, “On the road, I am Mrs. Ray Charles.” (Unmentioned in the film is the fact that Charles had twelve illegitimate children.) When he is home, his wife Bea complains that he ignores his sons’ interests and achievements. At one point Charles mentions that he didn’t see much of his own father growing up; his dad had three families. The viewer may well ask, So what did you do to change that?
It seems that Charles didn’t put much effort into anything that would require moral exertion. He dumps friends and partners when they are no longer profitable to him. He goes with the flow, ever self-protective, guarding his own interests and pleasures. He takes up shooting heroin and believes that it’s nobody’s business but his own, even when Margie begins to imitate him, even when she dies of an overdose. A woman capable of such action would be an interesting figure in a movie, but unfortunately Bea is little more than a cardboard saint.
All these disparate elements never quite knit together into a story. We see perseverance in Charles, but not growth. All the perseverance seems directed toward protecting and preserving himself. Hackford attempts to set a lightning rod in a traumatic event of Charles’s childhood, but as a psychological explanation it’s too scanty to work. Instead of a story arc we have lots of bickering-nearly every scene involves characters being testy with each other-but that is not a substitute for suspense or development. Over the course of two and a half hours it becomes merely tedious.
Yet in other ways this is terrific movie-making. The music, naturally, is stirring. The cinematography, scenery, and sets are pungently authentic. A few scenes are meant to be hallucinatory, and the viewer slides into them so subtly that they are deeply affecting. Not so subtle is the fluorescent green and orange of Charles’s remembered rural childhood, hues which suggest they need to check the outflow from the ol’ nuclear reactor down in the holler. And not all performers can produce folksy dialogue with ease; Charles’s mother (Sharon Warren) enunciates a line like “We ain’t got no time for no tears” so carefully that you suspect she is a professional actress. But overall the talent going into this biopic has produced a very well-crafted film. Too bad there wasn’t enough bio to build on in the first place.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.