152 minutes (PG rating)
Commentary by Kevin Miller
I saw this film 1.5 times this weekend. That’s because about one hour and twenty minutes into the first screening, the power went out. I was pretty disappointed as I drove home through the blacked out city. Up to that point, I had been thoroughly enjoying what was looking like an Oscar-worthy motion picture. Now I had to wait 24 hours before I could see how it ended. Turns out I probably should have quit while I was ahead.
To be fair, the first half of this movie should win an award. Of course, we’ve seen the “obscure musician makes it big” story many times before, but it never ceases to be exciting, and rarely is it told so well. Plus, Jamie Foxx plays Ray Charles so convincingly and with such warmth that this film, like Charles himself, is simply impossible to resist. (Foxx definitely deserves an Oscar.) Unfortunately, at about the halfway point, the narrative engine of this film simply runs out of gas. Foxx is still mesmerizing, and Charles’s music is still amazing, but the film itself starts to lurch and stagger around like the singer after he had taken one too many hits of smack.
Narrative concerns aside, if you are like me and all you know about Ray Charles going in is that he was blind and smiled a lot when he played the piano, I strongly urge you to see this film. Not only does it serve as an excellent introduction to his music, it also reveals a character far more complex and talented than most people realize. And yet in the midst of that talent lived a tortured soul who struggled with addiction, disability, racism, and grief. Ironic that a man known as much for his smile as his music could have lived through so much pain—much of it self-inflicted—but somehow not at all surprising.
It’s also not surprising that there is much to glean spiritually in a film so imbued with soul. In his early years, Charles was about as far down on the social spectrum as someone could get: poor, blind, a second-class citizen in his own country. Such people tend to elicit the dark heart or the Good Samaritan in all of us. Some took advantage of him because of his blindness, some loved him in spite of it, and a rare few realized that blindness is not a physical disability; it is a state of being. In that sense, Charles could see better than most. Watching the different reactions to the young Charles in this film, we can clearly understand that someone else’s physical disability is oftentimes as revealing of our own spiritual handicaps—those fears and apathies that inhibit us from embracing the humanity that we all share equally.
That is not to say that Ray Charles did not have his failings. His talent coexisted with debauchery. For some reason, these two often seem to go hand-in-hand. It makes one wonder why the most gifted among us are often the same people who struggle most with addiction, depression, philandering, and behavior disorders of all sorts. For Charles,a clue can be found in his relationship with God. Like many, Charles held God at arm’s length because of perceived injustice. For him, it was blindness and the death of his brother. Many of us spend the first part of our lives getting hurt by others and the second part of our lives trying to recover. We do a lot of different things to deal with pain from our past. Some, like Charles, numb the ache with drugs, alcohol or sex. Others smother it with work or busyness. The question, for Charles and for all of us, is how should we deal with it? What does God have to say about the pain in our past? What does healing look like for us?
Ray Charles discovered some of that healing by finding his voice. Due to his acute sense of hearing, he was a gifted mimic. The problem was, this ability hindered him from authentic expression. Then, once he found his true voice, those around him insisted he stop what he was doing because it had never been done that way before. Two church members even burst into a nightclub where he is playing and accused him of blaspheming God with his distinctive blend of gospel and blues. His response to these accusations and the subsequent loss of his saxophonist was much more Christlike than the attitude of his accusers. Perhaps in this reaction we can glimpse a spiritual insight. Whatever our shortcomings, and there are many, God responds to us with compassion. Instead of blame and condemnation, we are offered divine love and enduring grace. It is up to us to open our eyes to God’s abundance.
@ 2004 Kevin Miller.