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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT


Director: Taylor Hackford
Producers: Taylor Hackford, Stuart Benjamin, Howard Baldwin, Karen Baldwin
Screenwriter: James L. White
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell, Curtis Armstrong, Sharon Warrent Mulroney, Len Cariou, Howard Hesseman, Kathy Bates
MPAA Rating: PG 13
Year of Release: 2004


Ray tells the life story of the late iconic musical genius and American legend, Ray Charles. Although this movie plays primarily between 1948 and 1965, it also cuts back to the artist’s roots. Charles was born into a poor family in Albany, Georgia. At age five he witnessed the death of his younger brother. In a memory that haunted him throughout his life, he stood nailed to the spot while the little boy drowned in a bath basin. In her deep despair his mom yelled at Ray, ”why didn't you call for me to rescue the boy?” A few months later, Charles contracted glaucoma, and went completely blind at age seven. He blamed himself for the accidental death and carried lifelong guilt that, the movie argues, contributed to his eventual drug addiction.

With the staunch support of his fiercely independent single mother, who insisted he make it on his own in the world, Charles found his calling and his gift behind a piano keyboard. Touring across the Southern musical circuit, the soulful singer discovered his own sound, which revolutionized American popular music. His work reached worldwide fame when he incorporated gospel, country, jazz and orchestral influences into his inimitable style.

This film demonstrates how Ray Charles contributed to tearing down the walls that separate people and styles. As he revolutionized music, he simultaneously fought cruel prejudices against the blind, and racial segregation in the very clubs that launched him. He also championed artists’ rights within the corporate music business.

As Ray’s fame grew, so did his weakness for drugs and women, until they threatened to strip away the very things he held most dear. The genius of Ray Charles was nearly destroyed through the use of heroin, as he spent years in denial.

It was not until he was about to lose his family and his career, and spend years in prison, that he cleaned up. He broke down the barrier of drugs, which had caused segregation in his own life: the separation from his wife and kids. As the movie demonstrates the challenging process through which Ray Charles finally was able to defeat his own personal demons, it brings our attention to an inspiring and unforgettable true story of human triumph.

Cinema Alchemy:

My client, Barbara, (54) was dissatisfied with her life. Since her childhood she had unsuccessfully tried to lose weight. Her work in a managerial position in a big organization for more than 20 years had become increasingly dissatisfying. Because writing poetry and painting pictures inspired her, we had explored her artistic talents and dreams. But she still rarely engaged in creative pursuits.

One day Barbara came to her session telling me that she was deeply touched by the movie Ray. In response to my inquiry she told me that what effected her most were two things: Ray Charles’ amazing creativity and the fact that he may have developed blindness bec“If he had already been blind when his brother drowned, he could not have blamed himself for the death.” The direction in which this answer seemed to point surprised me.

From experience I knew that, in all likelihood, my client was moved by Ray's tragedy and had shared this response with me, because she was ready to express and explore previously unexplored preconscious material. My next question was a stab in the dark though: I asked her how the connection between a theme of responsibility and physical symptoms might have appeared her own life.

Consequently we explored whether a part of Barbara’s psyche still might hold onto a need for protecting her mom. As this understanding deepened over time, my client developed the capacity to keep her weight off.

I also asked Barbara whether she remembers certain experiences of her own creativity, unfolding in similar ways to the one she had seen on the screen. When she recalled several incidences, we explored these stories for a while. By doing so, as well as by bringing her attention to the physical sensations that were associated with remembering these experiences, she deepened her connection with her artistic nature. Pretty soon Barbara's inner work bore fruit. Holding Ray Charles in the back of her mind, she found deep and consistent joy in her creative pursuits.

Theoretical contemplations:

Because he wanted the real story told, Ray Charles was deeply involved in this film project for years, until his death in June 2004.

Biographically inspired movies frequently have a more powerful impact on the viewer than those that are based on a fantasy screenplay. I found that many of my workshop participants and clients, like Barbara, feel more deeply touched by a biographical motion picture, because they empathize strongly with the historical figure that they perceive behind the film character.

The opposite effect can also be true for some viewers. If this type of film hits too close to home, it sometimes activates a defensive structure and therefore inhibits deeper self exploration.

With Barbara, I used a part of the Cinema Alchemy approach that I call the Evocative Way. This method borrows from dream work. Our clients’ emotional responses to movies, like their nighttime dreams, can serve as a window to their more hidden layers of consciousness. Like exploring their dreams, inquiring into clients’ responses to movie scenes or characters can bring their preconscious inner world to a conscious level.

With Barbara, I used a part of the Cinema Alchemy approach that I call the Evocative Way. This method borrows from dream work. Our clients’ emotional responses to movies, like their nighttime dreams, can serve as a window to their more hidden layers of consciousness. Like exploring their dreams, inquiring into clients' responses to movie scenes or characters can bring their preconscious inner world to a conscious level.

As clients understand their emotional reactions to a movie, they get to know themselves in ways they previously were not aware of. The expanded awareness often helps them let go of unhealthy patterns and reconnect with their authentic self. If they resonate with a movie character in a positive or admiring way, a subsequent inquiry can help these clients to discover their latent and not fully conscious capacities and inner resources.

The Evocative Way helped Barbara let go of inhibitions to her artistic nature. After Ray became the catalyst for increased awareness of old unhealthy patterns in her relationship with her mother, she eventually overcame longstanding problems.


Guidelines for questions:

Suggestions for clients while they watch the film:

• Focus on the metaphorical meaning of this movie for you.

• What parts of the movie touch you most?

• What character do you most identify with and when?

Questions after the movie:

• As you reflect on the parts that touched you most, how does the movie character's experiences remind you of your own? Do certain themes in the film reflect themes of your own life?

• Do you get a glimpse of the capacities that you recognize in an admired movie character inside yourself? How do you feel when you sense the potential of these inner resources?

Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses:

Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.

Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.

Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.

Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)

Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.

DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy