The opening sequence of Ragtime (1981) takes place in a theater during the silent film era where the protagonist, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard Rollins, Jr.), accompanies a newsreel featuring the stars of American public life in the early decades of the twentieth century. While postmodern theorists and film historians have linked the content and form of textual and visual fictions with their historical counterparts, less attention has been given to musical and aural styles as historiographic interventions. And while new research in historical film studies has revealed the flirtations of mainstream feature films with postmodern critique, much of this work skirts the racially coded structures of historiography. This article explores screenwriter Michael Weller and director Milos Forman’s decision to focus on Coalhouse’s story (over novelist E. L. Doctorow’s objections) and to deploy ragtime as both African American counter-beat and explosive historical style.
Against the Beat: Ragtime, Black History, and Postmodernism
J. E. Smyth is Associate Professor of History and Comparative American Studies at the University of Warwick. She is the author, most recently, of Edna Ferber’s Hollywood: American Fictions of Gender, Race, and History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009) and the editor of Hollywood and the American Historical Film (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
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J. E. Smyth; Against the Beat: Ragtime, Black History, and Postmodernism. Film Quarterly 1 September 2013; 67 (1): 7–13. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/fq.2013.67.1.7
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