Release Date: 12/25/1981
Director: Milos Forman
Studio(s): Dino De Laurentiis Company, Sunley Productions, Paramount Pictures
Running Time: 155 mins.
Cast: Howard E. Rollins, Jr. (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.), James Cagney (Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo), Moses Gunn (Booker T. Washington), Debbie Allen (Sarah), Brad Dourif (Younger Brother), James Olson (Father), Mary Steenburgen (Mother), Elizabeth McGovern (Evelyn Nesbit), Kenneth McMillan (Fire Chief Willie Conklin).
Details: Based on the 1975 historical novel Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow about a proud black musician who rebels against racism in turn-of-the-century New York. The movie includes fictionalized references to actual people and events of the time and features the final film appearance of James Cagney as well as early appearances by Samuel L. Jackson, Debbie Allen, Jeff Daniels, Fran Drescher, Ethan Phillips, and John Ratzenberger. The film was nominated for eight Oscars, including Harold E. Rolllins, Jr. for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Story: Pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. plays ragtime tunes to a silent newsreel montage depicting turn-of-the-20th-century celebrities including Harry Houdini, Theodore Roosevelt, and architect Stanford White. Millionaire industrialist Harry Kendall Thaw makes a scene when White reveals a nude statue atop Madison Square Garden which is modeled after former chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit who is now Thaw’s wife. Convinced White has corrupted Evelyn, Thaw publicly shoots him dead.
An upper-class family resides in New Rochelle, New York, where Father owns a factory and his wife’s Younger Brother makes fireworks. An African American baby is abandoned in their garden, and upon learning the police intend to charge the child’s mother, Sarah, with child abandonment and attempted murder, Mother takes Sarah and her child in, despite Father’s objections. Coalhouse arrives in search of Sarah, realizes he is the baby’s father, announces his intention to marry Sarah.
Later Coalhouse is targeted by bigoted volunteer firemen led by Willie Conklin, who refuse to allow Coalhouse’s Model T- Ford to pass. Coalhouse finds a policeman and returns to find his car soiled with horse manure.
The policeman insists that Colehouse clean the manure off his car and move on, giving him the choice to do so or be arrested. Colehouse refuses, and is hauled in to the local precinct. After Father arranges for Coalhouse’s release, they discover his car has been further vandalized. Coalhouse pursues legal action, but can find no lawyer willing to represent him. Father and Younger Brother argue over Coalhouse’s legal recourse. At a presidential rally, Sarah attempts to tell President Roosevelt about Coalhouse’s case but is beaten by guards and dies of her injuries.
After Sarah’s funeral, Coalhouse and his supporters kill several firemen. He threatens to attack other firehouses, demanding his car be restored and Conklin be turned over to him. Father is disgusted at the violence but Younger Brother joins Coalhouse’s gang with his knowledge of explosives. Coalhouse’s gang hold the Pierpont Morgan Library’s collection hostage. Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo sends for Walker’s child as a bargaining chip but Mother refuses to give him up.
Booker T. Washington fails to persuade Walker to surrender, as does Father. Conklin is captured by police and forced to apologize to Coalhouse. Police Commissioner Waldo is disgusted by Conklin’s bigotry but cannot submit to terrorist demands and has him arrested. Coalhouse agrees to surrender if Waldo permits his supporters to depart in his restored car and Waldo agrees after Father volunteers to stay as a hostage. Coalhouse’s supporters escape and he drives Father out of the library. Ready to blow himself up, Coalhouse instead surrenders but is shot dead on Waldo’s orders.
Sources: Rogerebert.com; Wikipedia; IMDB. Photo Source: IMDB.