Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2005, Volume 25, No. 3
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Hackford, Taylor (Producer & Director). Ray. [Film]. 152 minutes, 2004. Universal Pictures release. Screenplay by James L. White and Taylor Hackford. DVD release date: February 1, 2005.

Reviewed by Carol A. Gosselink, Southwest Missouri State University

That Ray Charles Robinson, as portrayed in Ray, was a musical genius is never in question. Yet his greater genius rests in overcoming society's and his own psychological handicapping impediments. Born to an unwed, uneducated mother, Ray survived hardscrabble 1940s southern poverty. Due to his mother's insistence that her illiteracy and social status would not condemn them to subservience, Ray was toughened for the struggles ahead.

The film illustrates five formative childhood events. First, Ray witnesses his mother confronting an unethical employer, who summarily fires Ms. Robinson. As they march home barefooted on a dusty, rut-filled road, Ray's mother says, "Scratch a lie, catch a thief," a truism Ray remembers later when he dismisses a manager for embezzling his earnings. Second, Ray's mother admonishes him, "Don't never let no one take advantage of you cuz you don't got no education." Later we see Ray attending school due to his mother's determination to help him escape her plight.

A third incident haunting Ray for decades was the tragic drowning of his younger brother. The disturbing image of small hands and feet flailing against the water's death grip appears to Ray again and again. Without being explicit, the film implies that Ray's handicapping drug abuse emanates from his psychological distress over having done nothing to save Georgie.

A fourth brief but important vignette shows Ray being mentored by a backstreet long-fingered black musician composing the blues. From him, Ray first learns how to coax improvised riffs from the piano that will become part of his musical repertoire.

The final telling childhood episode, for which Ray is best known, depicts his insidious, undiagnosed loss of vision, leaving him able to see only faint shadows. Again, his frail but feisty mother imbues him with the will to surmount this obstacle: "You promise me, Ray, don't let nobody ever make you no cripple." Bravely sending her sole surviving son away to a school for the blind, Ray's mother helps him succeed in a handicapping, often heartless world insensitive to "cripples."

As a young man, Ray makes his debut at a mediocre club in Los Angeles run by a monetarily and sexually voracious woman who insists on becoming Ray's manager. The film follows Ray's bus tours with a group to play in small "colored only" dives. These endless, meaningless gigs with musicians already addicted to drug-induced euphoria, coupled with Ray's terrifying flashbacks of Georgie's drowning, lead Ray to start using heroin. Despite marrying the love of his life and shrewdly negotiating record deals "better than Sinatra," Ray continues his drug-addicted decline. According to the movie, in fact, more than suffering racial discrimination, more than people's attempts to exploit him because he was blind, the most handicapping experience of Ray's life was self imposed: the seduction of the needle.

Ray is to be applauded for his (albeit belated) challenge to "whites only" southern concerts. One day in Atlanta, as he is escorted past black protesters not allowed to buy tickets to his performance, Ray recognizes that by going along with apartheid, he was contributing to it. Never again playing for whites-only venues, Ray helps dismantle an ingrained, handicapping Jim Crow system and advances the struggle to achieve equality.

Finally, too, and as reluctantly, Ray confronts his drug abuse and, in brief but grim scenes, fights the demons cold turkey. The biopic implies that only by receiving absolution for Georgie's death from a psychiatrist is Ray finally able to beat his worst disability: drug addiction.

While musically enthralling, the movie Ray, like the man himself, is nonetheless seriously flawed. Ray, the man, was a womanizer, a drug user, and more fueled by ambition than loyalty to friends. Ray, the movie, Hollywoodizes the story. While conceding many of its subject's shortcomings, the film focuses far more on rationalizing Ray's actions rather than fully acknowledging that Ray's controlling and sometimes cruel behaviors were choices he made to achieve his goals. The movie reduces the countless mistresses--and sometimes fathered children--left behind in his wake down to two. In both cases, the women are portrayed as seductresses hoping to barter Ray's fame into careers of their own.

Perhaps the worst criticism for the film, however, is the sudden and abrupt condensation of the last half of Ray's life into a two-minute voice over with words on the screen heralding Ray's nonstop performances without the crutch of drugs until his death. As a gerontologist, this reviewer reproves such a clumsy ending that reinforces the belief that aging is such a serious handicapping condition, it is unworthy even of film time.

Despite these criticisms, Ray stands as a tribute to a man who prevailed in spite of vision loss, racism, and drug addiction in the meanest of mean streets, the music industry. For that, the soundtrack, and Jamie Foxx's Academy-Awarded portrayal, the film is worth a look.