Analyzing A Soldier’s Story brings me back to my college days where I took a course entitled Black Drama, where we discussed plays by and about African-Americans. After watching this film, I honestly wished we would have discussed the play it is based off of, Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play. The work is electric with racial stereotypes and motives that would have sent my class into a week of compelling conversation.
Directed by Norman Jewison, A Soldier’s Story is set up as a murder mystery and reveals to be a portrait of self loathing racism by the end. On an army base full of black soldiers, led by white officers in 1944 Louisiana, Sergeant Waters (Adolph Caesar) is murdered and an officer from Washington, Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins Jr.), is called in to investigate. The fact that Davenport is black makes all the difference. No one on the base has ever seen a black officer, bringing a new sense of pride to the black soldiers. At first, all motives lead to the local Klan or white bigoted officers on base and the idea that he plans on questioning and possibly arresting the racist white men in town is not settling well.
As he questions the different characters, mostly men from Waters’ troop, we are shown flashbacks that reveal more and more of Waters’ true character. He was a small, light-skinned black man with a lot of ambition and hatred towards southern black men who, in his perspective, conform to racial stereotypes. He singles out CJ Memphis (Larry Riley) from his troop, calling him “a clown in blackface” because of his laid-back attitude, southern dialect and bluesy musical talents. Waters presses his hatred against CJ until he retaliates, which brings serious consequences.
All in all, A Soldier’s Story is a compelling film, but while it’s smart and thought provoking, it seems to be constrained by the idea and structure of a murder-mystery. What this film is really discovering is an underlying racism within these African-American characters against themselves and the murder-mystery is here just to draw in and keep all races interested.
“Something’s wrong, ain’t it, sir? I mean, those Klan boys, they can’t stand to see us in these uniforms. They usually take the stripes and stuff off before they lynch us.”