I include Ray on my short list of movies recommended for its spiritual
or religious significance for any number of reasons, starting with Jamie Foxx's
magnificent portrayal of Ray Charles, an icon of American pop culture. Add to
Foxx's work, the sheer enjoyment of listening to a sizeable cross section of Ray
Charles' music, and the overall production qualities of what is, from a purely
visual perspective, a stunningly photographed period movie, and you have, at bottom,
a very entertaining, if often painful film.
Further ... because American
culture is so deeply infused with spirituality, and this film shows one of the
principal factors in making that so, Ray is a must see for anyone interested in
how religion functions at the very heart and center of American society, sometimes
In one of the most dramatic scenes in this film, two faithful
church goers interrupt one of Ray's nightclub performances, accusing him of perverting
Christian gospel music by packaging it as secular entertainment. This, of course,
is exactly what Charles is doing, but does this make the song writer and performer
a tool of the devil? Clearly not.
Does the transformation of a gospel hymn
extolling the love of God into a passionate love song with explicit references
to the sex act raise some interesting questions? To be sure. There have been lots
of other examples of musical genres that move across the line between the secular
and the sacred, often blurring that line in the process. Christmas carols represent
an evolution from the secular "ring dance," while African American spirituals
first borrowed from their indigenous roots in pre-Christian tribal culture and
then contributed to nearly every other genre of American music, both popular and
Ray Charles operated in the midst of all this, and has rightly
been crowned as the "king of crossover," but he was repeating what many others
have done, throughout history, mixing both the medium and the message in creative
new ways, while entertaining, enlightening, and sometimes inspiring his large
and enthusiastic audiences.
Throughout western history we see the line
between sacred and secular music constantly shifting and changing whether in choral
music, anthems, symphonies, spirituals, jazz, reggae, rhythm and blues, rock,
or most recently, rap. Is the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" a religious piece
doing the work of a nationalistic, secular jingo? Is "We Shall Overcome" revival
music or rallying cry for social activists? Does Madonna's "Like a Prayer," exploit,
pervert, echo, satirize, take inspiration from, or reinforce the practice of prayer?
The answers to such questions will vary according to the perspective of
the individual listener. In the case of Ray, however, one thing is clear. In the
telling of this powerful life story, director Taylor Hackford and screen writer
James L. White take inspiration from and essentially reinforce one of the core
myths of American civil religion. In this film, Ray is the creative genius and
hard-working mythic hero who triumphs over impossible odds to attain spectacular
success. The obstacles pitted against him include the poverty and racism of his
early childhood, the death of this younger brother, the early onset of blinding
dyslexia and his subsequent drug addictions. His womanizing is notorious and is
nearly fatal to his marriage. But, according the the screen play, he sees the
light just as he is about to self-destruct, triumphs over his heroin addiction,
becomes a champion of the civil rights movement, and donates millions of dollars
in later life to charity.
The problem is, the truth is not that simple.
Those who stay to watch the movie's credits learn that he fathered not just the
two children mentioned in the movie, but twelve, including several from a series
of women. He did defeat heroin addiction, but continued to enjoy alcohol, marijuana
and the company of women outside his marriage. Though it is not mentioned in the
movie, his marriage ended in divorce.
The full story of Ray Charles,
like America itself, is not one involving a straight path toward both success
and redemption, but a journey along a winding road with a number of dead ends,
switchbacks, and collisions along the way.
We want very much to believe
in Ray Charles, the mythic hero, but all too often we encounter in others, as
well as in ourselves, the anti-heroes who, like the real Ray Charles, nearly destroy
themselves as well as those around them. So the actual lesson one might draw from
this film is closer to central insight of the Christian story than it is to American
civil religion. To wit ... we are saved not by talent, hard work, or creative
genius, and we triumph over odds that are, in fact, impossible, only by the grace
of a loving God. We are not mythic heroes, we are sinners saved by grace.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.