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Screen Tests: 5 Early roles of Jamie Foxx before he was Ray Charles

Welcome to Screen Tests, where we look at the career of an actor’s, actress’, or director’s early work leading up to their big break, recognizing the many smaller roles and hard work it took to get there. Today we celebrate …

Jamie Foxx is a multifaceted performer adept in many mediums. Getting his first real break on the star-making comedy skit series In Living Color, Foxx would go on to star in his own television series, The Jamie Foxx Show, while occasionally making music on the side whether full length LPs or original tracks for movies. His path from In Living Color to his Oscar winning role as Ray Charles in Ray shows a guy who was able to fully realize his talents in both comedy and drama, sometimes in the same movie. We’ve chosen 5 early films to showcase that trace the popular actor’s rise to stardom, ones that earned him his place in the Ray cast. Let’s look at Jamie Foxx.

The Players Club (1998)

Jamie Foxx
The Players Club, 1998 © New Line Cinema

Honestly, any film/work in Foxx’s catalog that occurred after In Living Color and before the next film on this list could be put in this spot. Foxx’s very early career mostly made use of his funny bone and comedic timing. However, save for Booty Call, each of his early roles, especially in the later seasons of The Jamie Foxx Show and The Players Club, showed flashes of Jamie being able to be dramatic and deliver emotion. In The Players Club, he plays Blue, a DJ who has an attraction to the dancer Diamond (LisaRaye). In a world of pimps, players, druggies, and abusers, he’s one of the few individuals in the entire movie who gives an honest damn about others. Even in a film that in hindsight reads as a B-list who’s who for the time period (Bernie Mac, Charlie Murphy, Terrence Howard, and director Ice Cube to name a few), Foxx shows an early skill of making what time he’s given in a production count. This would serve him well in the next movies…

Any Given Sunday (1999)

Jamie Foxx
Any Given Sunday, 1999 © Warner Bros.

Any discussion of Foxx’s rise must include Any Given Sunday. Jamie’s turn as unknown and unheralded third-string quarterback “Steamin” Willie Beamen is spectacular work. Foxx not only looks the part as a legitimate signal caller (director Oliver Stone tabbed Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs for the part originally until some combination of tour scheduling and Combs’ reported inability to throw a football convincingly came to the light), he acts it. For a guy who never had a role be predominantly dramatic until this movie, one would never know that this was his first time in a drama. In an ensemble movie featuring big names at that time (Pacino, James Woods, Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid, even LL Cool J), it is Jamie who shines brightest. His Beamen is written with multiple layers, and Stone allows Foxx to tap into the character, showing his side despite being one of the “antagonists” of the movie. Jamie of course would go on to bigger roles and higher heights, but I find his work as Beamen to still be my personal all-time favorite character of his.

Ali (2001)

Jamie Foxx
Ali, 2001 © Columbia Pictures Corporation

Foxx’s first of four collaborations with director/producer Michael Mann sees him once again in a supporting role in a sizable cast. Ali chronicles a 10-year period in the life of legendary heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay, otherwise known as Muhammad Ali (played by Will Smith), seeing his rise in 1964 to his triumphant reclamation of the title in 1974 amid racial struggles and an unpredictable political environment. This is undoubtedly Smith’s movie, but Foxx once again makes due with the screentime he is given as assistant trainer and cornerman Drew Bundini Brown. His best moment comes about midway through the film, getting emotional with Ali as he’s forced to tell him he’s sold his championship belt for a quick drug high. If there were somehow any doubts that were still lingering after Any Given Sunday as to whether Jamie had what it took to be dramatic, Ali quelled those.

Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story (2004)

Jamie Foxx
Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story, 2004 © Fox

Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story marks the period in Jamie Foxx’s filmography in which he started to become more of a leading man and/or 1A co-star. In the movie, he plays Crips co-founder Stanley “Tookie” Williams, imprisoned behind bars for the many atrocities he committed. Redemption, made for TV back in 2004 on FX, has some of the common pitfalls of made for TV movies. It’s often cheap-looking, and a little rough in the editing department. Furthermore, the movie, despite fancying itself as a meaty biopic, doesn’t go anywhere deep enough as to the true depths of Tookie, making for a somewhat sanitized production.

But real movie stars, like quarterbacks, can raise the level of what’s around them. Redemption is bad without Foxx, but it’s watchable and even captivating at times with him in the lead. His turn as the legendary gangster is grounded, menacing when needed, and even a little moving. It’s why it’s a shame that with a little more script tweaking and confident direction (maybe this would have been better as a miniseries?), Redemption could have been something special. But at the very least, it’s a sound showcase for Foxx to flex his leading dramatic chops.

Collateral (2004)

Jamie Foxx
Collateral, 2004 © Paramount Pictures

The second half of 2004 proved to be quite the year for Mr. Foxx, going on to earn two Oscar nominations for his stellar work. The first of those nominations comes from the impressive crime drama/thriller known as Collateral. Michael Mann is behind the camera telling the story of a meek but friendly Los Angeles cab driver, Max (Foxx) who gets drawn in—forced, really—to be the tour guide for Vincent (Tom Cruise) a hitman who has five connected targets to take out by the end of the night. Collateral Is technically awesome, boasting the glitz and the grime of the City of Angels via sharp cinematography, primarily relying on digital. James Newton Howard’s score is tense. The writing is tight, straightforward but with levels. The talent Mann assembles in the cast is nothing to scoff at, either. In supporting roles, Mark Ruffalo, Jada Pinkett Smith, Javier Bardem, and Barry Shabaka Henry add greatly to the film. But it’s Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx who carry this film, often with just dialogue in a cab. Over time, we start to figure out more about these two, their lives, and their philosophies.

READ MORE: A closer look at the Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise action film Collateral

Foxx imbues Max with a likability and an everyman-esque quality from the get-go. He’s hard on his luck, but putting on his bootstraps in pursuit of the American Dream, albeit with a little inaction. He’s a person we all know or may happen to be. And as the night goes awry and Max is pushed to limits he’d rather not be exposed to, he’s forced to adapt or die and seeing Foxx transform from stumbling and fearful to confident and assured is noteworthy and believable. Cruise creates an unforgettable character in Vincent, as does Foxx in Max, which as a basic cab driver is rather impressive. Foxx received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar nom here. It was clear that the Foxx era was upon us, with his music career getting second wind also. Less than three months later, he’d go on to star as a legendary rhythm and blues musician in…

What Followed

Jamie Foxx
Ray, 2004 © Universal Pictures

Ray. This portrayal of Ray Charles gave Foxx the Academy Award for Best Actor, and in the process cemented Jamie as an A-list star from 2004-2012. The role and movie itself may not be as compelling as some of the others on this list, but nonetheless is by all accounts an accurate telling of the story of “The Genius of Soul” that Foxx does justice to. Jamie Foxx was an overnight success and a household name across the globe and it only took … six years.