Ragtime ★★★★

#89 of 100 in my Top 100 Directors Challenge

Director Miloš Forman gives us a walloping good period piece set at the turn of the 20th century and based upon the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow. It's got themes so modern, you might swear it's about current events, from racial conflict and police brutality to sexism and urban terrorism in the name of justice. But it also has a sensitivity and tolerance that harks back to a much more civil era, when the American Dream was still the aspiration of blacks, whites, immigrants and politicos alike.

Much of the story is focused on Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard E. Rollins Jr.), a well-educated black pianist who is on the verge of achieving the dream -- beautiful wife, healthy child, brand-new car and a steady job that pays well and suits his artistic temperament. But when a bunch of good-ole-boy Irish volunteer firemen intimidate him, he decides to stand his ground and demand proper respect plus restitution under the law. And when that doesn't happen, he goes violent, organizing a gang of arsonists and killers to attack fire stations in Pennsylvania till he gets justice.

Unfortunately, the situation takes the life of his baby's mama Sarah (Debbie Allen) and tosses a well-to-do white family into the fray, with James Olson as the business-minded Father, Mary Steenburgen as the do-gooder Mother, and Brad Dourif as the creative loose cannon Younger Brother. There's also a parallel story going on with unbalanced millionaire Henry Thaw (Robert Joy) murdering NYC architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer) and leaving Thaw's entertainer-wife Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern) free to pursue a relationship with Younger Brother.

Others cast here include Moses Gunn as black moderate politician Booker T. Washington, Kenneth McMillan as bigoted volunteer fire chief Willie Conklin, and Mandy Patinkin as the street artist Tateh, who eventually finds success as a filmmaker. But perhaps the biggest surprise is James Cagney, coming back after two decades in retirement, to play New York Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo ... and what a wonderful performance he delivers.

This film scored eight Oscar nominations, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Rollins and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for McGovern. The other Academy Award nominations were for Best Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Original Song and Original Score. Forman managed a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director, too, and it surprises me that fewer than 500 members of the Letterboxd community have seen this. It's truly explosive cinema.

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