Way Over Town
Midway through Ray, the splashy, much-promoted Ray Charles biopic, he meets his wife. Polite, even demure, in her white blouse and trim skirt, Della Bea (Kerry Washington) pulls back from a first kiss outside her parents’ home. Ray (Jamie Foxx) smiles: this girl has class, and she’s not afraid to tell him what she thinks. Indeed, just a few hours before, she’s called his record “nice,” but also encouraged him to find out what “the real Ray Charles sounds like.”
Three weeks later, he’s back from a short tour with his band, and Della Bea has gotten over earlier concerns that they were “going too fast.” She invites him into her bedroom (her parents are away), where they share a night of lovely, movie-style sex, all graceful limbs and ardent sighs. He’s struck by her sincerity and loveliness, to the point that he trusts her enough to remove his sunglasses and reveal his eyes, blind from glaucoma since he was seven, asking, “Can I call you Bea?” She nods, and suddenly, Ray just has to get out of bed and sing to her; as she shuts curtains, to ensure the neighbors don’t see them, he begins playing the piano and singing: “I got a woman way over town, / She’s good to me, Oh yeah! / Someday we’ll marry, way over town.” Bea turns to her man, shocked: “It’s a gospel song,” she gasps. “That’s sacrilegious.”
Here as elsewhere, Ray collapses lore and desire into metaphorical, emotional, and narrative economy, occasioned by a groundbreaking song. This is the moment, the film proposes, when Charles combined gospel and R&B, a musical and political move that provoked uproar and popularity. Bea’s reaction stands in for any number of Christians offended by such use of church songs to express secular yearning or sexual exultation, not to mention turn a profit. But Ray, this film contends, had been raised in rural Georgia, where he absorbed every kind of music available, from gospel and blues, to country, jazz, and big band (he even started his career playing with a country band, noted briefly in the film). He challenged expectations, encouraged listeners to rethink music, not as discrete genres, but a continuous horizon of possibility, expansive and passionate. That, and inspiration to shake a tailfeather.
At its least interesting, the film chronicles Charles’ career in episodes, his work with the McSon Trio (including his developing friendship with fellow junkie Fatehead [Boekeem Woodbine]); friendship with Quincy Jones (Larenz Tate in a throwaway part); racist diner scenes while playing the chitlin circuit (and eventual decision not to play in a Jim Crow venue, leading to his official “banishment” from Georgia for years); bouts of trust and distrust with manager Jeff Brown (Clifton Powell); a fling with backup singer Mary Ann (Aunjanue Ellis); his evolving relationship with Atlantic Records’ Atlantic Records Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and Jerry Wexler (Richard Schiff); and his revolutionary contract with ABC-Paramount, the first for an artist to own his own masters.
While such plot points need to be touched, they do tend to make the life story look like a series of simplistic, one-by-one events. The brilliance of the music carries Ray through repeated rough spots. Most creatively, the film offers up little fantasies of invention, as when Ray and his band, including backup singers, the Raylettes, improvise “What’d I Say,” or, he is moved to write “Hit the Road Jack” by a fight with his mistress Margie (Regina King, once again excellent quite beyond the tidy script), as the scene transitions from their hotel room to the recording studio. Such montagey shorthand for the creative process is hardly new, but its economy is clever, even charming.
Less successful are the film’s depictions of Ray’s ongoing emotional torment, frequently reduced to tedious biopic tricks, montages and flashbacks that overexplain and simplify cause-and-effect trajectories. So, little boy Ray (C.J. Sanders) is drawn to the colored bottles his mother Aretha ((Sharon Warren) hangs from a tree outside their humble home in rural Georgia. The film cuts to this image repeatedly later, the bottles blurred and tinkly in the wind, to show his fading sight and nostalgia for childhood. More troubling is the film’s association of the child’s tremendous sense of guilt over his younger brother George’s accidental drowning, followed by a title reading, “Nine months later,” as Ray is going blind, his eyes afflicted with perpetual wetness, paling to blue.
Aretha gives him a sort of strength, telling him never to let anyone make him a “cripple,” encouraging him to get through the world without cane or dog, to rely on his other sense—hearing especially—to navigate. The trope makes sense, as Ray goes on to hear everything in and as music, but Ray overuses the device, as he will eventually recover himself from a 20-year heroin addiction specifically by recalling his mother’s words, then have a dream in which he not only visits with her and George (who sweetly insists that his death is not Ray’s fault), but also is granted sight. While the movie showcases Foxx’s pitch-perfect imitation of Ray’s blindness throughout, here it gives in to a troubling fantasy whereby literal vision appears the means to spiritual and psychological insight.
As this moment suggests, the film’s grappling with blindness as metaphor and experience is complicated and not always coherent. At times, Ray worries over the limitations imposed by blindness, using Ray’s renowned sexual virility and promiscuity as a means to re-invigorate his (ostensibly lost) masculinity; as a friend of mine noted, a scene where he’s auditioning for a white country band has them impressed by his ability but concerned about his appearance, which might “scare” customers. The bandleader borrows a pair of white, feminine sunglasses to cover Ray’s eyes, and the camera lingers for a moment on this image: Ray in a white lady’s white-framed glasses, a visual joke that connects blindness, gender, and race in disturbing ways.
Similarly, the film allows Ray to voice a connection between his addiction to efforts to deal with his own personal, perpetual darkness (he tells Bea that she can’t understand the pain he lives, always alone in his blindness and his fear). Beyond this, Ray can’t think through addiction as a complex, harrowing experience, instead reducing it to conventional movie-junkie scenes, where he shoots up in the bathroom, or has his drug works discovered by someone who’s subsequently horrified by such betrayal, for instance, say, endlessly supportive and strong-willed Bea.
Such reliance on clichés, as well as women characters, to prop up the movie’s emotional narrative is disappointing. While Foxx’s performance is breathtaking, the film is often caught up by its biopic constraints, its efforts to make Ray both typical (fallible, pained, ambitious) and special.