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Remembering Ray Charles

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Hollywood doesn’t take chances on our stories of substance,” says actor Larenz Tate, “but I’m glad they’re trying by getting behind a movie like this. And Jamie shuts it down.” Tate is talking about Jamie Foxx’s star turn in Ray, the much-anticipated rags-to-riches film about the late entertainer Ray Charles, in which Tate also appears.


Ray hits theaters October 29, making screen magic with some of Black Hollywood’s finest stars, including Regina King, Kerry Washington, Clifton Powell, Harry J. Lennix and Bokeem Woodbine. “The performances in this film are something African-American audiences haven’t seen in a while,” says Clifton Powell (Rush Hour), who plays road manager Jeff Brown.


The film, which spans four decades, deals with Ray Charles’s loss of sight, constant fight against racial prejudice, nearly 20-year struggle with drug addiction, and numerous extramarital affairs. Born Ray Charles Robinson, Charles was considered one of the greatest entertainers ever. He was instrumental in the invention of soul and rock ’n’ roll. Charles recorded more than 60 albums—four were country-and-western records—and earned 12 Grammys and recognition in the rhythm and blues, jazz and rock ’n’ roll halls of fame. Before he passed away at 73 earlier this year, Charles was actively involved in the film’s production. He opened his musical vault, rerecorded original music, and offered script input.


Trying to condense the life of a man as great as Ray into two and a half hours wasn’t easy. In fact, director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman) spent 15 years bringing the project to the big screen after Charles’s son, Ray Charles Robinson, Jr., approached him about making a movie about his father. During the hectic three-month shoot in the spring of 2003, cast and crew endured sweltering Louisiana heat, logistical challenges and a minor production stall after Foxx’s arrest at a local casino for disturbing the peace on April 26, 2003. (He pleaded guilty to the charges and paid the fine.)


“We didn’t have the world’s biggest budget,” Hackford says. “We brought in people who realized there was something special going on and wanted to make it work.”


“It was an honor to be a part of such an important project,” says young actress Kerry Washington (She Hate Me), who stars as Charles’s second wife, Della B. Robinson. “Ray and Della worked through a lot together, and the film explores how complicated love is, whether between husband and wife, business partners or a mother and child.” Harlem native Bokeem Woodbine (Dead Presidents) auditioned four times before landing the role of Charles’s saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, who was influential in the early days of Charles’s drug use. “When I spoke to Fathead about it, he explained many musicians delved into heroin,” says Woodbine. Playing such an unflattering character didn’t stop him from being awed by the film: “This was the opportunity of a lifetime. I hope I did my duty.”


For Regina King (Jerry Maguire), Ray wasn’t about clocking the most screen time. “When you think of Regina King, you don’t usually think mistress,” she says of her role as sassy backup singer and Charles’s lover Margie Hendricks. “In some ways, Margie was Ray’s muse, and I was up for the challenge.” While King and Foxx’s scenes are some of the heaviest—depictions of Charles’s drug abuse and unapologetic womanizing—the costumes were another story. “The tight sweaters, the heels, the bullet bras and the tight corsets were so delicate,” King says. “When I tried them on, they literally came apart in my hand.”


Actor Harry J. Lennix (Keep the Faith, Baby) met Charles at age 15 on the Blues Brothers set and again during filming. “I just gushed,” says Lennix, who portrays Charles’s personal manager Joe Adams. “Mr. Adams is such a complex, compelling and engaging man—Duke Ellington even wrote a song about him. I love playing interesting people.”


Terrence Dashon Howard (The Best Man), Aunjanue Ellis (Undercover Brother) and newcomer Sharon Warren, who makes a memorable debut as Charles’s mother, Aretha, also jumped at the chance to make film history. So did Hollywood heartthrob Larenz Tate (Love Jones), who plays music producer and lifelong friend Quincy Jones. He also enjoyed working with his close friend Jamie. “To see him change was amazing,” says Tate. “We really were making magic.”


Photo Credit: Kwaku Alston

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