The problem with a film like "A Soldier's Story" is that too many will skip it because it is one of those black social films. They expect a boring bitchy sermon. That's too bad, because they miss out on one of the best ensemble films of the 1980s, not to mention a tough mystery story that navigates deep psychological waters in delivering a message far less rosy and doctrinaire than you might expect. It is World War II, and just outside a Louisiana army base for "colored" troops, a black master sergeant is shot to death on a deserted road. Whites from the nearby town are suspected. Howard Rollins Jr. plays Capt. Davenport, a black lawyer sent by Washington to investigate. The expectation is he will ruffle no feathers and work instead at being what the base commander calls "a credit to your race." But Davenport quickly makes clear he isn't anyone's token, even if it means pressing white suspects or investigating the possibility that whites didn't kill Sgt. Waters at all. Today, you see the film and notice Denzel Washington has a major role as one of Sgt. Waters' men. But the star of the film is neither him nor Rollins, but Adolph Caesar as the doomed Sgt. Waters. "They still hate you!" he almost laughs as he is being murdered, and one of the many mysteries sorted out in the film is that Waters wasn't talking to the killer but himself. Waters is bent out of shape not only over white American attitudes towards blacks, but his own attitude about how a black person can be more acceptable in white society. He expresses admiration for Nazi Germany, noting that they have a commendably direct way at getting at the problem of racial purity. For him, the black race is held down by a certain type of southern black, "geechies" he calls them, who play to white stereotyping by not speaking correct English and so on. Caesar tackles Sgt. Waters as if his were a Shakespearean role, and in a way it is, Shylock crossed with Richard III, filtered through a multitude of American racial prisms, white on black, black on white, black on black. His every twitch and body shudder come over perfectly, especially when you watch a second time. Even in smaller moments, like when he's getting ready to beat the tar out of Denzel, and is joshing with the other non-coms, he never lets go of that glint in his eye or his hold on the viewer's jugular. Though Rollins and Washington are both very good in support, even better is Art Evans as Waters' sad flunky, Wilkie, who gives two contradictory depositions to Davenport and the deepest insight as to what made Waters tick. Dennis Lipscomb as Capt. Taylor is also fantastic, a white officer who tells Davenport frankly he doesn't want him investigating the murder because of the color of his skin. Taylor's not a bigot, mind, he just wants justice and fears a black officer won't be able to make an arrest in Louisiana. Taylor's more socially awkward than anything else, and scripter Charles Fuller, working from his great "A Soldier's Play," has a lot of fun with him and his exchanges with Davenport. When Davenport tells him of an especially cruel trick Waters played, Taylor refuses to believe it. "Colored people aren't that devious," he says, a nice line in that you discover Taylor's racism and his naive decency simultaneously. In his DVD commentary, director Norman Jewison doesn't mention his earlier "In The Still Of The Night," which is odd given the many parallels between the two films. Both are murder mysteries set in the American South with blacks and whites butting heads. Rollins even went on to appear in "Still Of The Night" the TV series. I don't see this film as a copy of that earlier one, but a variation on the same theme, and in many ways an improvement. Instead of noble Sidney Poitier, you have a deep raft of black acting talent representing a variety of different attitudes and moral shadings. Real stock is taken, too, of America's racial divide, how people can still feel American enough to want to die for their country even if it won't let them drink from the same water fountain. There's something heartbreaking about the scene where we see the black soldiers celebrating being sent off to combat, in the wake of what happened to WWI hero Sgt. Waters. Will they come back with memories of their own Cafe Napoleon?
A Soldier's Story
A Soldier's Story
An African-American officer investigates a murder in a racially charged situation in World War II.
September 26, 2020