(Before the article in question starts today, I just want to extend my thanks to the lovely Ashley Hirt for writing the article! If anybody else wants to write a guest article, please let me know. With the said, read the review.)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Regina King, Kerry Washington
Period of history in focus: 1950s – 1960s America (Birth of Rock & Roll)
A few vital facts about “race music” –
- Rhythm & blues, soul, gospel, and jazz were all labels for the music that would become known as rock & roll.
- The term “race record” was first used in 1922 and was primarily a marketing term, advertising music to African Americans.
- As seen in the film, there was a great deal of resistance to the “secularization” of African American religious music. Ray Charles built his fame in large part by co-opting gospel techniques into his popular music. Today, we think nothing of hearing hymn-based chord progressions in our music. But at the time, this concept was pretty controversial in the black community.
- The events in this film were only a decade or two removed from the era when black musicians were not welcome as guests in the sold-out clubs they performed in – and vestiges of this Jim Crow-era racism were still around in the South as late as the 1970s.
The formula for success when tackling racial issues in Hollywood seems to be simple: daring to even make a “controversial” racial film is a radical, searing, bold move and is Oscar-worthy in itself. Movies about the struggles of minorities are typically universally adored because hey, who wants to admit they hated “The Color Purple?”
The only controversy stems from the fact that Hollywood ineptly portrays protagonists of color as either flawed redemption seekers or squeaky-clean paragons of virtue, as if having an anti-hero of color is somehow going to draw accusations of racism.
Hollywood’s black characters are too often one-dimensional.
Because Hollywood holds actual racial dialogue in complete disdain and invests itself instead in clichés, stereotypes, and pandering, the tendency exists in the film industry to trivialize and over-sentimentalize subjects of color.
The most recent example of this is “Ray,” the 2004 biopic of Ray Charles that established Jamie Foxx as a legitimate acting/musical threat and triggered a wave of films depicting the titans of black popular music (“Dreamgirls,” also starring Foxx, and “Cadillac Records” followed in 2006 and 2008, respectively). This is the music that triggered radical social change and, in some cases, racial turmoil. Taylor Hackford, the director of “Ray,” focuses his film not on Charles’ tremendous trail-blazing musical accomplishments but instead invests substantial screen time in the schmaltz of Charles’ various family tragedies and struggles with heroin addiction. This, predictably, concludes with Ray conquering his demons and assuming his rightful place in musical legend as a result. The truth is slipperier than that.
At the beginning of the film, Hackford focuses on Ray’s relationship with his mother. Aretha Robinson is portrayed as a tough-loving, hard-working sharecropper and the sole nurturer of Ray’s tenacious streak. According to Ray’s biography, however, another woman guided his early years. The ex-wife of his absent father, Mary Jane was the softness to Aretha’s toughness, the nurturer foil to Aretha’s tough-love approach. Ray’s stubborn sense of independence was surely derived from his biological mother, but his pleasure-seeking instincts were a result of Mary Jane’s indulgence. Aretha made certain to keep Ray dependent only on himself, assigning him daily chores to perform even as he lost his sight. These two women contributed the traits that made Ray Charles such a complex human being. Hackford never deigns to acknowledge this dichotomy of parenting or the effect it had on Charles’ psyche.
Instead, Hackford depicts Ray’s love of drink, women, and heroin as a numbing agent for the loss of his younger brother George. While George’s death was a significant trauma, Ray never really suffered immense grief until the loss of his mother while he was away at a school for the blind. “The death of my mother Aretha, that had me reeling. For days I couldn’t talk, think, sleep or eat. I was sure enough going crazy,” he told David Ritz. This disconnect from his support system was a defining moment in Ray’s life.
Ray was fortunate to attend an incredible institution, the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, where he channeled his talent and grief into a formidable musical education. Here, he excelled at playing Chopin and Mozart and developed skill on the clarinet; it was here that he learned a critical trait for his future success: arranging. He was steeped in a classical style and became proficient at classical theory, a skill that he would creatively develop with infusions of gospel and soul.
Hackford’s film, instead of mentioning any of this character-building background, focuses on an odd subplot where Ray hangs out with Quincy Jones and later fires his first manager for skimming his money. Far be it for me to criticize the creative decisions of a Hollywood director (snort), but it seems to me that there is a fascinating subtext to Ray’s story that already exists. Why fabricate a schmaltzy redemption tale centered around Ray’s brother, when the true details of his youth are far more interesting?
Ray’s early years are dramatically depicted as a gradual swan dive into heroin addiction and conflicts with equally strung-out band members. This is not a “Trainspotting”-esque portrayal of heroin addiction; Ray’s life of drugs is surrounded by velvet pillows and women, not Exorcist babies.
The film doesn’t exactly portray Ray’s cadre of women in a positive light either; his female backup singers are just sassy, slutty window dressing. In fact, most of Ray’s associates and sidemen are given a less-than-accurate depiction, but hey, the movie’s about Ray, right?
You’re stereotypes, bitches – this is storytelling!
Perhaps the most egregious offense made by the film is the faux racial tension it fabricates – why make up racial issues when the truth was definitely worse than fiction? The scene where Charles arrives at a Georgia performance venue and is met by protestors is pure fiction. In reality, Charles received word from a group of black students about the promoter’s policies, and he never traveled to Georgia, preferring to simply cancel the appearance. The assertion that he was “banned” from performing in Georgia is also a complete fabrication. The promoter did sue Charles, but the idea that he was somehow banned from the state for making a racial stand is absurd. Why would the state of Georgia choose Charles’ hit “Georgia On My Mind” as its STATE SONG if the man was persona non grata in the state?
This is just sloppy writing, but it’s typical of the Hollywood attitude toward race relations – things were certainly bad, but it’s simply insulting to make up events of discrimination. In “Dreamgirls” a record producer, also played by Jamie Foxx, engages in the practice of payola to get his girls on the radio. Payola was the act of pay-for-play – disc jockeys held considerable power in the era before corporate radio, and producers of “race records” were known to slip a few bills under the table to get a record in rotation. In “Dreamgirls,” this action by Foxx’s character is what eventually causes his downfall, and the film treats this revelation as sweet redemption for the victims of the producer’s underhanded tactics. They sure showed him!
What that film neglects to mention is that payola was common practice at all levels of music, including plenty of white artists. Payola was only pursued as a crime after it was revealed that black artists were resorting to bribes to hear their music on the radio. Low-level bureaucrats were sufficiently outraged enough to make a federal case out of payola, and those disc jockeys that pocketed money for spinning “race records” were censured and humiliated. DJ Alan Freed was a vocal supporter of African American music, and was the most notable casualty of this sudden disdain for music industry bribery.
A common music business practice only became taboo when African American artists used it to disseminate their art into the mainstream. Stay classy, America.
Much of the latter half of “Ray” is devoted to Ray’s struggle to kick heroin. If the film is to be believed, Ray quit the habit and was forever a squeaky-clean musician who sprouted wings and a halo for the last decades of his life. He is also portrayed as settling down and remaining steadfastly faithful to his wife.
Ray Charles was a complex man, a bit of an anti-hero. He was disgustingly talented, but self-destructive. He was a loving man, but a womanizer. The film desperately scrambles to resolve all of the threads of tension it spins, putting a bow on the story of an American icon. Everyone leaves happy, Ray is suitably redeemed, and Hollywood gets their stock happy ending.
You know where I’m going with this. Complex characters don’t magically become boring and upright.
Heroin was no longer a part of his life, but Ray spent the rest of his days drowning in gin, and smoked kilos of marijuana every day. As David Ritz writes, “he was hardly a spokesman for sobriety.”
Ray Charles was certainly a vital component of the development of American rock & roll. He mixed jazz, gospel, and blues styles into a highly original and unique concoction that hasn’t been successfully imitated. He was also a tenacious, complicated man, fighting against his own handicaps and racial undercurrents to find success in the bare-knuckled brawl that is the music industry.
It’s just puzzling that Hollywood would choose to reduce such an individual to a neat, box-office-friendly package, rather than depict the true complexities of Ray’s character. Instead, this film positively DRIPS with schmaltz and sentimentality. Ray Charles was many things, but sentimental was not one of them. Jamie Foxx’s portrayal rightfully earned great respect, as Foxx managed to capture the dichotomies of the man with aplomb. Imagine if the writers had been brave enough to give him some real material!
Of the film about his life, Ray said: “Hollywood is a cold-blooded motherfucker. It’s easier to bone the President’s wife than to get a movie made. So I say God bless these cats… And now that it’s happening, maybe I’ll have a better chance of being remembered. I can’t ask for anything more.”
Doesn’t really sound like a sentimental man. Too bad that’s what we got.
David Ritz, “It’s a Shame about Ray.” Slate Magazine – http://www.slate.com/Default.aspx?id=2108507
Grove Music Online, “Ray Charles.” This site is subscriber-only, but is the go-to music encyclopedia.
Guthrie P. Ramsey, “Race Music.” Terrific book about the birth of black music and rock & roll.
Katherine Charlton, “Rock Music Styles: A History.” Good overview text of all styles of rock music.
IMDB, Ray. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0350258/
Expect an update on “The Last Samurai” starring Tom Cruise. I am planning on watching the film on Wednesday or Thursday (you can find updates about this at my Twitter feed at the right side of the blog or at @hhistrionics) and posting soon after.