The bad-guy character Tony Montana, from the 1983 Brian De Palma-directed film Scarface, has maintained an unrivaled pop culture prevalence ever since Al Pacino first strutted across screens in the role 30 years ago. And for some reason, the ambitions of the foul-mouthed, murderous drug-dealer have especially resonated with people-of-color the world over.
I’ve seen him on posters, t-shirts, shoes, and even cologne bottles. Yet, I still don’t know why Tony Montana is such a beloved character by people-of-color in this country in particular. Maybe it’s the women, the money, or the power. Maybe it’s the rags-to-riches story of a Cuban refugee who made something of himself (if you can call it that) using grit and determination; even if, in the end, he paid the ultimate price for it all.
What I do know is that I was doing some shopping in a store the other day, and the place was in full back-to-school mode. Hanging up on a wall in the store’s home decor section was a collection of posters clearly aimed at the college dorm buying-audience. Right smack dab in the middle of the collection was a poster of Tony Montana. And as luck would have it, I was in the right place, at just the right time to see a young black teenager pull one of the Scarface posters down and place it in his cart. “Yo, ma, I wanna get this,” he said.
I guess I can understand. For a teenager, it’s probably not considered “cool” to hang up the portraits of actual real-life heroes like Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, or Sr. Cesar Chavez. These were good guys who were all about helping people. They weren’t larger-than-life fictional characters from the movies who chased women (Don’t even say it!), sold drugs, and killed their enemies (Don’t!). They don’t represent the atmosphere of machismo and aggressiveness created by hanging Tony Montana on the wall.
Maybe that’s why the central character in 1981’s Ragtime, directed by Milos Forman, isn’t as well known as he should be, and why his poster isn’t hanging on dorm room walls across America. But he should be on the wall, because he kicked a lot of ass in that movie.
Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (brilliantly played by the late Howard E. Rollins, Jr.) is a character that many people-of-color would likely relate to. He’s a hardworking ragtime musician, loves his family, is awfully proud of the beautiful automobile he owns, and lives during a time when racial oppression is the norm. Set in early 20th century New York, Ragtime depicts the drastic measures this man will ultimately take when his property is purposely damaged, his dignity is snatched from him, and his family is threatened.
He may not have told anyone to say hello to “his little friend.” But he did have a fictional sit-down with Booker T. Washington that ended with Walker telling Washington to, essentially, kiss his ass and let him handle his business.
Sure, Coalhouse resorts to violence when his protests and appeals for help fall on deaf ears. And, no, that’s not how we want to teach our youth to handle their problems in life. But he did it for all of the right reasons!
Ragtime also features stellar performances from Debbie Allen and Moses Gunn, with an appearance from Samuel L. Jackson, of course. (You know if you look closely enough, Jackson is in every movie you’ve ever seen.)
There are also some other side stories told in Ragtime, about some other characters, but their stories are a dime a dozen. Coalhouse Walker, Jr. is the star of this film. And I’m being deliberately vague about the details of Ragtime and its supporting characters, because I want readers who have never seen the film to view it with fresh eyes and ears. But that brings me to another point about this film.
Part of the reason Coalhouse Walker, Jr. isn’t as revered a character as he should be is that, for the longest time, you couldn’t view Ragtime, even if you wanted to. Ragtime is one of those great films that saw a home release on VHS and DVD, and then, for no good reason, Paramount Pictures seemingly took it out-of-print. But as recently as today, I saw that Amazon Instant Video is streaming Ragtime. And it’s free if you subscribe to Amazon Prime. Ragtime is also available for rent and purchase from YouTube, apparently.
The bottom line is, if you’ve never seen Ragtime, you need to, while you still can. Rollins, Jr., as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., is a dramatic tour de force. The always wonderful Debbie Allen is also in rare form as Sarah, Walker’s woman. If you have young people in your home who are used to the glamorization of the bad guy in movies and on television, you’ll be pleased to be able to show them the alternative– a good guy who turns bad ass out of principle, win or lose.
Maybe if enough people go to that site and watch Ragtime, and then tell a friend to watch, Paramount Pictures will realize the enormity of the character and image for which they likely own licensing rights. And, just maybe– by this time next year– bad ass Coalhouse Walker, Jr. will be on a wall, in a college dorm near you.
I can dream, can’t I?