Ragtime: The Dangers of Abstract Moralizing

by tigermanifesto


Dramatic and literary theory are often fantastic ways to give order and meaning to media analysis. Understanding persistent archetypes and plot structures gives you a better grasp of how writers convey meaning. It gives you a kind of shorthand for getting to the heart of a story’s significance. On the other hand, these archetypes are often crude abstractions and when they are applied without care they can erase the more concrete details of a character which might have more significance than the particular “arc” they happen to inhabit. Any tool, especially ones that use sweeping abstractions, can be used improperly.

I encountered one such improper use when discussing Miloš Forman’s 1981 film Ragtime and its protagonist (though this is an ensemble film, he clearly takes the pivotal role) Coalhouse Walker (Howard Rollins, Jr.). Walker is a black pianist who manages to claw his way to middle class respectability in turn-of-the-century America. He is even able to afford a brand new Model T, thus, in his mind, sealing his newly elevated social role. Walker, who previously abandoned his partner and child because he could not support them, returns to them and wants to build a respectable family. Unfortunately, his ambitions are blocked, literally, by a group of Irish volunteer firefighters who want to put him in his place. They seize and eventually ruin his car, enraging Walker and sending him on a quest to regain his car, exact justice on the firefighter station chief who wronged him, and assert his humanity.

At first he appeals to the law and the courts, asking that the rights supposedly granted to him as an individual be enforced. The film brilliantly shows how concrete structures of racism work to disempower him at every turn, making it apparent that, whatever he achieves and gains, it can all be taken away. The reality is that the bourgeois liberal rights he has are oriented toward benefiting the rich white people who are at worst murderous toward him and at best paternalistic. Like the Biblical Job, he is a plaything at the mercy of “higher powers,” and is systematically dispossessed of his property, his dignity, his wife, and finally his life. At last, he realizes that the society that pretended to be free, that promised so much but devoured him at every turn. Frantz Fanon described this hypocrisy, the very cornerstone of Western bourgeois imperialism in this famous quotation:

“Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe.”

This statement is graphically brought to life in the brutal murder of Coalhouse Walker in front of J.P. Morgan’s library. Walker eventually realizes that none of his supposed rights can be his unless he can defend himself, and he organizes a band of armed men to terrorize the fire chief and eventually hold the aforementioned library hostage. With the help of a disillusioned fireworks designer, they rig the building with explosives and promise to detonate if Walker’s car is not returned and the firehouse chief is not handed over to his justice.


The person with whom I was discussing Walker’s character noted that he fit the archetype of the Greek tragic hero. Though he is virtuous and seeks justice, he has a fatal flaw, in this case the “sin of pride,” as she put it, and this leads to his downfall. While that hold true in a descriptive sense–he is indeed proud of himself and tries to the utmost to regain his dignity–it fails as an analysis of his character because it blots out the living context in which he lives and all the concrete aspects of his situation. He is not like Icarus, a gilded elite with dangerous ambition.

Nor is he like Hamlet or MacBeth, other aristocrats who, though they are meant to be moral examples to the masses and rule their underlings with grace and nobility, are afflicted by moral flaws that destroy them. He is more like Job, a mere pawn who is systematically dispossessed of everything and yet holds his head up and defends himself from the suggestions of his friends that he has brought this upon himself.

Walker is certainly flawed. He treats both his future wife and his car as his property, abandoning the former when it was inconvenient and returning as if he has every right to his child. In one poignant scene, he meets a black lawyer to push his case into the courts, but the lawyer rightly objects that he has no time for a rich black man who has lost his car. There are, he notes, poorer people with real problems. Considering that many African Americans were being lynched, dispossessed, and subjected to far worse torments than losing a luxury item, this is a reasonable statement. Certainly, Sarah, his lover and the mother of his child, suffers an even more ignominious fate, appealing to the Vice President for justice on her husband’s behalf when she is beaten to death in a crowd. One is reminded of the Russian people in 1905 appealing to the czar for relief from the brutality of their situation, only to be met with fire and lead.

The reason that characterizing Coalhouse Walker as a classic tragic hero is incorrect is not that it is descriptively wrong, but that it does not accurately explain his actions nor does it do anything to oppose the reactionary system that killed him in the film. It stays at the level of abstraction, ignoring the actual content of the film and encouraging us to see his final defeat as both tragic and necessary, since his fall was preordained by his “tragic flaw.”

Certainly the film’s logic is conventional: the black rebel who arms himself and disturbs the tranquility and obliviousness of white society must be punished. To say that he was afflicted by the “sin of pride” is to indulge in the worst of bourgeois moralizing, pinning the fault for his death on his transgression of a class and racial system rather than on the system itself. Without a correct historical understanding of dehumanizing racism and the exploitations of capitalism, we can only shake our heads in bemusement at this would-be soldier for justice. “He should have played by the rules,” we might say. Indeed, by using this description we fall into conspiracy with the executioners. While I don’t think that Walker’s individual terrorism is viable since it totally lacks links with a true mass movement or a strategy for social change, I also believe that preaching about the problems of individual pride obscures the real problem and allows us to shirk responsibility. Yes, this is fiction, but stories like Walker’s are far more common than many realize, playing out daily everywhere in America.

This is the value of a Marxist historical analysis of Ragtime. Because there is a unifying theory of history at its heart, it can both accurately describe Walker’s circumstances as well as explain their social origins. Further, it provides a correct political program for the elimination of these concrete, violent, exploitation, and oppressive structures. We are not left equivocating or making moral speeches. We don’t waste our time mourning the racists who die at the hands of the black militia. We understand that without arms and an army the people have nothing. We need a concrete analysis of a concrete situation in order to transform the world. Lament and sermon might be available to us, but without revolutionary theory and proper concrete analysis, we are without the weapons that might actually transform the world, which is why we’re here in the first place.