Race and 'Ray'

This weekend, a collection of well-coiffed, well-dressed, and well-endowed celebrities will stand on a Southern California stage in front of a glamorous, celebrity-filled audience and millions of television viewers, opening envelopes that announce the winners of the 77th Annual Academy Awards. For most Americans, it will be a one-night diversion, a meaningless opinion poll – the results of which would be quickly forgotten but for the millions of dollars of followup advertising hawking the prize winners.

For many African Americans, however, this year's Oscars will have a far different meaning: the awards will be a symbolic referendum on whether America has finally come to see and accept African Americans – the real African Americans, what and who we are when we go back to our communities at night and toss off our shoes and shut out the outside world – or if we will have to wait a little longer.

They will be watching what happens to the movie Ray, both in the Best Picture category, and in the nomination of Jamie Foxx as Best Actor.

This quiet vigil in black neighborhoods and bars and living rooms has gone largely unnoticed outside the black world. The mainstream media tends to paint race with the broadest of all strokes – are there minorities represented, or are there not? – often overlooking the subtleties that actually make up the American racial world. And so there was intense mainstream coverage of the selection of Sidney Poitier as best actor in Lilies of the Field in 1963, because no black actor had ever done that before. And 39 years later, after the sweep by Halle Berry (Monster's Ball) and Denzel Washington (Training Day) of the Best Actor/Actress categories, it was widely considered that black acting had arrived, that blacks were now fully appreciated in the movie industry, and that story line was dead.

Part of why black concerns over this year's Oscars have been overlooked is the obvious question: what could black folks possibly have to be concerned about this year? Foxx himself has two nominations – one for Ray, one for Collateral – while fellow black actors Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby) and Don Cheadle and Sophie Okenedo (both for Hotel Rwanda) are also up for Oscars.

Among African Americans, however, Foxx's nomination stands out. And that is because Ray is a far different major-release movie than we have ever seen on American screens. In a combination of content, pace, and presentation, "Ray" is a black movie.

From the Spielberg-Oprah Winfrey Beloved collaboration to Carl Franklin's Denzel Washington vehicle Devil In A Blue Dress, John Singleton's Boyz n The Hood, and Spike Lee's entire body of work, black-themed movies with black lead actors and majority black casts are no longer an anomaly in American film. But in many ways, these movies were like Gershwin's 1920's era folk-opera Porgy: black themes showcased – sometimes highly successfully – in a white form. Ray, however, almost literally flips the script, blending content and form in a way that only can be described as "black." Only Charles Burnett's 1990 To Sleep With Anger comes close, and Anger, despite an all-star pairing of Danny Glover and Mary Alice, went unnoticed at the box office.

One of the major themes in Ray Charles' work was his combining of blues and gospel music into a single piece, bridging a secular-spiritual split that had divided the black community since the days of the slavery-time cotton fields. (That split is highlighted in the movie in the "all y'all going straight to hell" devil music scene, when a minister and his flock try to bust up one of Charles' club sets in the middle of his straight-out-of-gospel song "Hallelujah, I Just Love Her So.")

But an unstated theme of the movie is bridging the often-overlooked split between African-American Christian spiritualism and the older African spiritualism many thought was permanently discarded in the holds of the slave ships in the Middle Passage. Photographer-historian Bill Steber, who has documented many of the older African practices in his blues photo essays on the South, says that "remnants of African culture and religion are woven into the fabric of American culture in so many ways, they often remain hidden in plain sight."

One visual symbol of that old African spiritualism – should we call it the real "old-time religion?" – is the tinkling, multi-colored bottle tree, first making its appearance in Retha Robinson's Greensville, Fla. yard, later recurring, periodically, in Ray Charles' remembrances of his childhood and the drowning death of his younger brother. Steber dates the trees back to ninth-century Congo, describing them as "colorful bottles (traditionally cobalt blue) ... placed on branch ends to catch the sunlight. When an evil spirit sees the play of light, it enters the bottle and, like a wasp, is thereby entrapped." There is something clearly both old African and non-Christian in the bottle tree images in the movie, even for those who don't know the details of its symbolism.

Another subtle slip into a black world view in Ray is the manner in which the movie looks at the death of Ray Charles' brother George, and Charles' relationship with his long-dead mother. Perhaps reflecting Christianity's divided views on the subject and American society's tendency to ridicule those who believe in such things, American motion pictures are generally uncomfortable with the subject of ghosts, most often either treating them as supernatural demons to be run from or destroyed, as virtual cartoon characters (such as in Ghostbusters) or seeing their appearance as aberrations – sometimes welcome aberrations – but nonetheless deviations from the normal order of things (such as in the movie Ghost).

For many African Americans, however, ghosts and spirits are not imaginary phantasms, but familiar beings whose makeup is so gossamer they can travel unhindered through the veil that divides this world with the other. Particularly in Ray Charles' pivotal conversation with his mother and George near the end of the movie, as he is trying to kick his heroin habit, Ray treats those spiritual beliefs with both a respect and a matter-of-fact naturalness that the usual behind-the-hand tittering is not possible when those scenes come on the screen.

Ray also steers closer to the black side of the water in its treatment of sex. For all the "wardrobe malfunction"-bared breasts and gyrating booties of rap videos, a majority of the African-American community is really quite conservative and modest at heart when it comes to issues of public nudity, and get particularly fidgety when it is black women who are doing the baring. There was an undercurrent of black grumbling – generally ignored by the mainstream media – when Halle Berry left little to the imagination in her Monster's Ball on-screen intercourse with her husband's executioner, and a quiet "Yeah, see what you open yourself up to?" when, a year later, actor Adrien Brody considered Berry as part of his prize when winning the 2003 Best Actor Academy Award.

In Ray, Regina King plays one of the more pulsingly sexual singers of our lifetime – Raelette Margie Hendrix (after Foxx as Charles tells her his room number is "69," King's throaty "you're so nasty, that's what I love about you" goes down as one of them all-time sex line deliveries of movie history). And yet, amazingly for these times, King does it all without baring her body. That theme is carried throughout the movie, dealing with Charles' legendary womanizing without a single obligatory sex scene. That is one of the reasons why Ray bridges the black generation gap in a way most American movies do not – it is a movie where children, parents, and grandparents can sit in front of the same screen, and neither twitch with boredom or quiver with embarrassment.

It does not hurt Ray's attraction to younger black audiences, either, that the King line is encompassed within what is essentially an MTV-style music video within the movie itself, the story of the supplanting of singer Mary Ann Fisher with Hendrix as Charles' on-the-road lover, interspersed with nightclub performance scenes, all while Fisher sings "What Kind Of Man Are You?" While almost every American movie tries to attract young audiences, few of them have managed to tap into the hip-hop style and form of young viewers in such a way, while never disrupting the movie's flow. And that black generational bridging is not hurt either, of course, by the fact that Ray Charles' music looked both backward and forward, drawing from the hog-calling, barrelhouse blues of the early 20th century, participating in the founding of rhythm & blues, and (such as in the opening riff of "What'd I Say") anticipating rap.

Couple that with Sharon Warren's portrayal of Charles mother Aretha, an outstanding portrait of the intuitive intelligence and strength and suffering of African-American women (without the obligatory sex) in a medium that showcases far too little of that, and it becomes easier and easier to see why black audiences would see Ray as both special and vastly different from the usual attractions.

Still, few of these issues are being articulated even by African Americans themselves, either outside or inside the black community. It is doubtful that many black folks know why they like Ray so much, or even care. Instead, during a TVOne interview with Ray stars Foxx and King, host Catherine Hughes describes scenes of black people coming out of the movie sharing thoughts with people they do not even know, feeling that they have shared a special experience, an honoring of black life with all its flaws, without pretense. Most often what you hear in black neighborhoods, in chatrooms, or over the telephone, from friends and cousins and acquaintances alike, is simply, "You gotta see it." Flying under the public radar, it is a bringing-black-folk-together phenomenon we have not witnessed since the 1970's, with the much-discussed and widely publicized reactions to the Roots television series.

And so, this weekend, even if they do not watch the actual ceremonies, large numbers of black Americans will pay special attention to this year's Academy Awards. In many ways, the results will not matter. The release of the movie Ray has already affirmed something for many African Americans – their secret selves, long-nurtured in dark corners, but kept from general public view. In years to come, we are going to see the coming out of this movie as a river crossed, and it is as yet unknown what will be found on the far bank.

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