‘Ragtime’ – One of the Great Black Film Tearjerkers



My DVR is filled with movies that I keep avoiding. I’ve seen some of them, but even the ones I haven’t, all have a similar theme. I call them ‘tearjerkers’; stories that evoke sadness and pull your emotional strings.

A couple weeks ago I decided to check one out.

Christmas 1981 saw the release of the historical fiction drama, “Ragtime”, directed by Milos Forman and adapted from the 1975 novel of the same name, written by E.L. Doctorow.

This multi-layered story centers on a wealthy white family living in New Rochelle, New York in the early 1900’s. One of the story-lines involved characters played by Howard Rollins, Jr. and Debbie Allen, who are the heart of the project, as an estranged couple who rekindles their relationship & the tragic end they both meet.

I first saw this movie when it started airing on HBO and besides being the first film I ever saw with an ‘intermission'(the run time is two and a half hours), it was also the first movie that I saw upset my mother and her sisters, which informed me of the power that cinema can have.

Rollins portrays Coalhouse Walker, a well-dressed and spoken musician who returns to town to find his young child and the child’s mother(portrayed by Allen), staying with the wealthy family.

After charming the family with his piano playing skills, the family allows the child and mother to stay with them until Walker can earn enough from his job performing in a nightclub band to pay for a wedding. But after a run in with a crew of bigoted firemen with no legal recourse, along with another tragedy, Walker seeks justice on his own terms.

Allen is powerful in her role as a depressed washerwoman who tries to abandon her child at the home of the wealthy family. She came into this project after the success of the musical drama, “Fame” the year prior.

Even veteran actor Moses Gunn makes a cameo as Booker T. Washington who visits Coalhouse and his crew after they take over the Morgan Library (Frankie Faison & Samuel L.Jackson make early cameos as members of the crew).



During it’s theatrical run, it earned $17.4 million and was lavished with numerous award nominations from the Oscars, BAFTAs, Golden Globes and others (including Rollins for Best Supporting Actor).

Gunn won an Image Award for Best Supporting Actor, and Singer/Songwriter Randy Newman won an L.A. Film Critics Award for Best Song.

Rollins lost to Sir John Gielgud’s role in “Arthur” for the Oscar… and the Golden Globe.

During the climax of “Ragtime,” my mom cursed and screamed at the screen.

Rollins got robbed… twice.

I didn’t see her get that emotional from a movie again until “The Color Purple”… which is like… the “Titantic” of Black Tear-Jerker movies.

If you’re looking for a well-acted & directed ensemble period drama, that might have you kicking your TV into or off a wall, “Ragtime” is that movie.

Watch 3 clips from “Ragtime” below, and in the comment section, mention what some of your favorite Black tear-jerker movies or TV shows are:


  1. I remember seeing this as a kid and how hard it was to watch. even at that innocent age, i was still very disturbed by the racist violence and injustice! For a few years now I have wanted to see a modern take on this story, because we’re dealing with the SAME issues today! I would love to see that happen.

  2. The Deep Space Nine Episode which featured Tony Todd as an adult & aging Jake Sisko was a tear jerker for me because of its focus on the father-son relationship. When I first saw To Sleep With Anger in the theater I got a little teary eyed because I felt this was a great film by a great filmmaker. Burnett’s The Glass Shield was another film which left me somewhat shaken. I am sure there are others including Spike’s Malcolm X & Sembene’s Camp Thiaroye, but these are the ones that presently come to mind.

    • Good list of tear-jerkers…never heard of “Camp Thiaroye”.

      Thanks for playing.

  3. Throwback. Imitation of Life. Mahalia Jackson in a heart stopping rendition of song at the funereal — the passing daughter screaming and chasing the hearse! Millenial remake would be interesting. Is there any cost to passing today? Can anyone do it or do you have to look like the other to do it? Hmmmmm.

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