Miloš Forman’s 1981 American epic Ragtime, based on the acclaimed novel by E.L. Doctorow, has a sprawling patchwork structure that reminded me of the films of Robert Altman. I was unsurprised, therefore, to learn afterwards that Altman had originally been attached to direct the picture before Forman took over the project. The kaleidoscope of characters and Americana from the beginning of the 20th century, before the Great War, is apparently pared down from the tangled branches of narratives in the source novel. The story of the film becomes primarily focused around the tragic events in the life of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (played brilliantly in an Oscar-nominated performance by Howard Rollins), a black piano player who turns to violence to try to achieve personal vindication after suffering a series of gross injustices.
Forman apparently saw something in the hopeless plight of Walker’s character that reminded him of the injustices he saw under communism in the Czechoslovakia of his youth. The choice to elevate Walker’s story to prominence gives a narrative focus (as Ebert points out in his review) that brings an emotional clarity and sharpness to the climax of the film, which might have been diffused if more time had been spent on the other threads of the story.
Nevertheless, there is still a lot going on in the film. We are introduced to a successful, genial, and seemingly happy family who live an orderly and prosperous existence, led without question by Father, the patriarch played by James Olson, and attended by servants under the quiet supervision of Mother, his initially dutiful wife, played by Mary Steenburgen (the characters are not given any other names). This idyllic, white Protestant life is soon upended by the discovery of an abandoned black baby in their garden. When the mother of the baby is caught, the family takes them both in to their home to care for them. This is the first sign of a rift between Father and Mother. Her compassion for the plight of the poor, unwed black woman and her child wins the day over Father’s practicality and insistence on propriety and the law, though what means she uses to win her way we do not know, as their discussion takes place offscreen.
The fact that Father does concede to take them in, though, is the also the first indication that the film will be filled with subtly complex characterizations. Father may be patriarchal and cold, but he is also fundamentally well meaning and decent. He is prideful and patronizing to his wife and to the characters of color in the film, but he also feels responsible for ensuring their well being, and makes both financial and physical sacrifices eventually to try to help them in his own way.
Most of the characters are treated with this sort of subtlety, given space to show over the course of the film that they have many sides to them. This allows Ragtime to be much more than a moralizing message film, and much better than the type of film that allows us to look back smugly on our forbears and pat ourselves on the back for how far we have come. If Forman saw parallels to his home country, he was also later to recognize the parallels to our own 21st century existence, as evidenced by an interview presented as a supplement on the DVD edition of the film. Although most viewers will sympathize and grieve with Walker over the injustices he faces (more on that in a moment), Forman points out that his ultimate response is to turn to terrorism as a means of seeking redress. The director felt that the film wouldn’t be able to be made in a post 9-11 world, given that the central character ends up being a murderer and a violent extortionist. Watching it in 2017, Walker’s story feels almost ripped from today’s headlines. The racial tensions that lie just under the surface throughout most of the first half of the film are exposed and brought to a violent head later.
The incident that sends Walker on his tragic path occurs when he is stopped in town by a group of Irish firefighters as he drives his brand new Model T Ford. He has just left the house of Father and Mother, having proposed to marry Sarah (Debbie Allen), the mother who was caught abandoning their baby, but now living in their household as a servant. As Walker passes the firehouse, the firemen block his way and begin to harass him, trying to force him to pay a toll. Walker departs his car to seek help from a local beat cop. When he returns with the policeman, his car has been vandalized by the firemen, who have placed horse dung in the driver’s seat. Walker tries to insist that the firemen clean the mess out of his car. But as the argument escalates, not only does he not receive satisfaction, but he is taken off to jail, while the gang of firemen face no consequences. After Father comes to bail him out, he begins pursuing a quixotic quest from government office to office, and seeking assistance from both white and black lawyers, but receives no encouragement, only a lot of doors slammed in his face.
This one incident doesn’t exhaust the films’s treatment of the racial disparity between whites and blacks, but rather is only the surface layer of a nuanced depiction of the varieties of injustice that were (and are) present in the American experience. The firemen display the overt, intimidating racism that most people of all colors now recognize and deplore. But there is the institutional bias present as well, that not all would agree is actually racism. Yet it led to the wronged man, Walker, being the one to be thrown in jail, with no legal means of recourse. Too, there is the casual, assumed racism that persists in the patronizing manner and offhand slurs that many of the white characters employ. Even a decent character like Father, who was willing to take in a black baby and his mother, is not immune from some displays of prejudice. In the scene where Walker first comes to the family home of Father, Father does not invite him in to wait in the parlor as he would have a white caller, but asks him (politely of course) to wait around the back of the house.
As always, wealth also plays a role in the American story. The injustice of Walker’s treatment is highlighted by contrast with real life railroad heir Harry K. Thaw, whose story is woven into the fabric of Ragtime. Early in the film, Thaw murders the famous architect Stanford White, shooting him in the head in the middle of a Madison Square Garden. Thaw had been obsessed with White over his attentions to Thaw’s wife, former chorus girl and model Evelyn Nesbit. Thaw’s wealth allowed him to first achieve a “not guilty” verdict on an insanity plea, and then to later be released from the asylum where he was ordered to be treated. Walker, though he also became a murderer, was never given a chance to come to trial.
The contrast of wealth and poverty also is illuminated when we follow Evelyn from her charmed life among the wealthy elite, into the Jewish slums of the city. There she encounters Tateh (Mandy Patinkin), a peddler who makes cameo portraits and flipbooks for sale. This is one of Forman’s most elaborate scenes, filled with extras and period detail that add greatly to the sense of time and historical texture of the picture, though providing little in the way of advancing the plot of the main characters. Tateh moves from this life as a struggling street artisan, to eventually finding himself dancing and dining among the wealthy by the end of the film.
Tateh’s journey also brings in one of the other side themes of the film, an exploration of the various forms of popular entertainment of the day. Silent films feature prominently in Ragtime, as we see Coalhouse Walker accompanying newsreel footage in the theater, and later we see Tateh become an early silent film director. We see dance halls for both white and black patrons, and mention of the way popular music was distributed in the day—sheet music you played yourself at home on your drawing room piano. The film’s score by Randy Newman is evocative of the period’s music, without being composed directly from the tunes of the day. Walker, the itinerant musician, is able to eventually make a good enough living from his piano playing to buy his automobile, a status symbol which was evidently in the view of some, too high a symbol for a black man. This automobile becomes the locus of his eventual downfall.
This brings me, at last, to the character of Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo, played by James Cagney, in his final film role. Though the great star gets top billing in the film, he really only arrives in the final hour of the picture, to preside over the standoff with Walker. He and his band of masked men have taken a museum hostage and begin to make demands: he wants the fireman who wronged him delivered to “his justice,” and he wants his automobile restored. The black men in the gang are assisted by Mother’s younger brother (Brad Dourif) who has turned from his personal romantic frustrations in stalking Evelyn Nesbit, toward something more active. He offers to use his explosives expertise learned in constructing harmless fireworks for making bombs for Walker to carry out his threats. Waldo sends a series of negotiators in to meet with Walker and try to talk him into a peaceful resolution, including the influential black leader and educator, Booker T. Washington (Moses Gunn). Washington delivers a moving speech calling for Walker to consider that the long struggle for peaceful advancement of their race can be set back incalculably by the violent actions of a few. This is immediately undercut by Walker’s bitter laughter. He did try to deal with his situation with peaceful and legal methods, and the result was a piling on of injustices. But Washington cannot reason with a man who has decided that violence is the only means, and he concludes with the words to Walker: “You are damned.” We know that he speaks the truth.
The standoff ends when Waldo sends Father in to be with Walker as the other members of the gang are allowed to escape. Father’s bravery is admirable, in being willing to go in to retrieve Walker, when the police cannot guarantee his safety. Indeed, Waldo suspects that Walker may choose to blow himself up with Father alongside him. Father has faith in the relationship of trust he has gradually established with Walker, and this trust is rewarded. Walker chooses ultimately to renounce his call for vengeance, and after arranging that his conspirators can safely get away, he comes out unarmed. Waldo has won the day, but in a wrenching final moment, he orders the sharpshooter next to him to fire upon Walker as he exits the museum steps with his hands up in the air.
Walker’s execution without trial by police seems to be a painfully familiar story today. There is simply no way of seeing Ragtime in 2017 without being struck by the contemporary resonance of this story. But as I stated before, this is not a moralizing and didactic movie, but a real work of art. There’s a very particularly American tragedy here in this story, and the fact that Doctorow’s story blends real historical figures with his own fictional ones reminds us that amidst the spectacle of entertainment, we are still experiencing this ongoing tragedy in our time, in the real world.
The sensationalistic Thaw trial depicted in Ragtime was called the “Trial of the Century” in the papers of the time, an earlier era’s example of real tragedy turned into entertainment. Amidst the entertainment of brilliant performances and beautiful historic recreations, Ragtime shows us a fictional man who never got to stand trial for his crimes because he belonged to a class of citizens that were first marked by their skin color. Can this entertainment speak to our real tragedies today, and cause us to consider more seriously the stories of our brothers and sisters of color? Have we moved at all away from the subtle forms of racial injustice and inequality that we see in 1910s America? Have we even moved away from the overt racism of the firefighters in Ragtime?
Ragtime begins and ends with the identical images of Evelyn Nesbit, the beautiful chorus girl, dancing on stage in spotlight. She is beautiful, colorful, and free of any defining context in her dance. She is a representative of the distraction of a shallow pursuit of diversion and the comforts of money. But more enigmatic, and more poignant, is the brief penultimate scene. Father looks out of the window of the family’s house, hiding behind the curtain from the brief backward glance of Mother, as she is helped into an elaborate automobile by Tateh. The rest of his family is about to be driven away as well in this car, leaving him behind, perhaps for good. His cold authoritarianism has driven his wife to leave him for Tateh, the now wealthy Jewish film director. Father’s young son, Tateh’s daughter, the Grandfather, and a nurse fill up the back seat. And in the nurse’s lap sits the little black baby—Coalhouse’s son. It seems that he, too, is part of this heterogeneous family experiment born of pain, death, and the remnants of other families that were broken in order to bring them together.
This post is part of the TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon 2017, hosted by Kristen Lopez of Journeys in Classic Film. Click the banner below to visit her site for a list of all the other great participants for this event from this month!