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Ray Charles: America's Mythic Hero

Movie Review

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 covertly so.

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 classical.

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.

Charles Henderson

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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.

For further information about Charles Henderson.