A newsreel montage depicts turn-of-the-20th-century celebrities including Harry Houdini, Theodore Roosevelt, architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer), and life in New York City, accompanied by ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.). Millionaire industrialist Harry Kendall Thaw (Robert Joy) makes a scene when White unveils a nude statue atop Madison Square Garden, modeled after former chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern), Thaw’s wife. Convinced White has corrupted Evelyn, Thaw publicly shoots him dead.
An upper-class family resides in New Rochelle, New York, where Father (James Olson) owns a factory where his wife’s Younger Brother (Brad Dourif) makes fireworks. An African American baby is abandoned in their garden, and upon learning the police intend to charge the child’s mother, Sarah (Debbie Allen), with child abandonment and attempted murder, Mother (Mary Steenburgen) takes Sarah and her child in, despite Father’s objections. Coalhouse arrives in search of Sarah, driving a new Ford Model T, and realizing he is the baby’s father, announces his intention to marry Sarah.
Younger Brother witnesses White’s murder and becomes obsessed with Evelyn. Thaw’s lawyer Delmas (Pat O’Brien) bribes Evelyn with a million-dollar divorce settlement to keep silent about Thaw’s mental instability and to testify that White abused her. Passing through the Lower East Side, Evelyn encounters street artist Tateh (Mandy Patinkin), who throws out his unfaithful wife (Fran Drescher). He leaves New York with their daughter and sells the flip book he created. Evelyn and Younger Brother begin an affair as she prepares her return to the stage, while he assumes they will eventually marry. After Thaw is found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, his lawyers inform Evelyn that Thaw will sue her for divorce on the grounds of infidelity and she accepts a smaller settlement. The affair ends, leaving Younger Brother adrift.
In New Rochelle, Coalhouse is targeted by bigoted volunteer firemen led by Willie Conklin (Kenneth McMillan), who refuse to allow his automobile to pass by. Coalhouse finds a policeman (Jeff Daniels) and returns to find his car soiled with horse manure. Coalhouse attempts to force the policeman to intervene, but the policeman insists that Colehouse should clean the manure off his car and move on, giving him the choice to do so or be arrested. Colehouse refuses, and is hauled in to the local precinct. After Father arranges for Coalhouse’s release, they discover his car has been further vandalized. Coalhouse pursues legal action, but can find no lawyer willing to represent him. Father and Younger Brother argue over Coalhouse’s legal recourse. At a presidential rally, Sarah attempts to tell President Roosevelt about Coalhouse’s case but is beaten by guards and dies.
After Sarah’s funeral, Coalhouse and his supporters kill several firemen. He threatens to attack other firehouses, demanding his car be restored and Conklin be turned over to him. Father is disgusted at the violence but Younger Brother joins Coalhouse’s gang with his knowledge of explosives. Ostracized by their own white community and hounded by reporters, Father and Mother leave for Atlantic City. They encounter Tateh, now a film director on a photoplay with Evelyn. Mother is attracted to Tateh and she and Father quarrel. Coalhouse’s gang hold the Pierpont Morgan Library’s collection hostage. Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo (James Cagney) sends for Walker’s child as a bargaining chip but Mother refuses to give him up. Father demands she turn the child over and returns to New York to assist Waldo and Mother leaves.
Booker T. Washington (Moses Gunn) fails to persuade Walker to surrender, as does Father. Conklin is captured by police and forced to apologize to Coalhouse. Waldo is disgusted by Conklin’s bigotry but cannot submit to terrorist demands and has him arrested. Coalhouse agrees to surrender if Waldo permits his supporters to depart in his restored car and Waldo agrees after Father volunteers to stay as a hostage. Coalhouse’s supporters escape and he drives Father out of the library. Ready to blow himself up, Coalhouse instead surrenders but is shot dead on Waldo’s orders. The film ends with another newsreel: Evelyn dances in vaudeville and Thaw is released from an asylum. Houdini escapes from a straitjacket several stories above the ground, while newspapers announce that the First World War has begun. Younger Brother returns to his fireworks job and Father watches from the house in New Rochelle as Mother departs with Tateh and Coalhouse’s son.