A Soldier’s Story (1984)

Synopsis:

Howard E. Rollins, Jr. (Milos Forman’s Ragtime) plays an African-American Army lawyer, CPT. Richard Davenport, who is ordered to investigate the mysterious murder of a fellow African-American soldier, SGT. Vernon Waters (Adolph Caesar, Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple), that occurred on an Army base in the South.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“I don’t intend for our race to be cheated of its place of honor and respect in this war.”

This film adaptation of Charles Fuller’s 1981 Pulitzer-winning play A Soldier’s Play is a crackling murder mystery in the best Agatha Christie tradition, a powerful social drama and an incisive character study, all rolled into one superb movie.

With A Soldier’s Story, Canadian filmmaker Norman Jewison returns to a familiar territory after scoring great acclaim with his popular Oscar-winning thriller In the Heat of the Night (1967) many years before. As with that film, the director uses a murder-mystery as a pretext to explore identity and racial biases in America.

Although the movie is eager to examine racial inequality during the Jim Crow era, A Soldier’s Story is much more than just a race-relations drama. Director Jewison and writer Fuller, who adapted his own play, seem determined to not let the movie fall into trite message-movie territory. Jewison and Fuller put the emphasis on the murder investigation, so the audience doesn’t feel like they are being lectured.

A Soldier’s Story isn’t just a great period piece, but also an absorbing whodunit. The addition of stylish flashbacks — let’s remember that this was originally a stage play — gives the movie a visual kick that’s very cinematic. Make no mistakes, this isn’t run-of-the-mill canned theater — it’s a film in every sense of the word.

The movie definitely sounds and look fantastic. Composer Herbie Hancock’s (Round Midnight and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling) flavorful soundtrack and Australian cameraman Russell Boyd’s (The Year Of Living Dangerously and Tender Mercies) moody cinematography help create the proper ambiance. Thanks to Hancock and Boyd, you feel that you were transported back in time to 1940s Deep South.

The acting is astounding. The elegant Howard E. Rollins, Jr. is superb in the starring role — it’s rock-solid work from the gifted actor. It’s too bad that Rollins died so young! Denzel Washington (Training Day) shines in a supporting role. I’m certain that had Rollins lived longer, he would have enjoyed the type of career Washington has had.

Adolph Caesar is, however, the true star of the film. He is dynamite as the cruel Sergeant who is haunted by personal demons. Like Rollins, Caesar died way too soon — what a pity! Caesar has a handful of mesmerizing monologues, and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination. Dennis Lipscomb (WarGames), Wings Hauser (Vice Squad), and Robert Townsend (The Five Heartbeats) complete the great cast. Soul singer Patti LaBelle makes her film debut as Big Mary — she, of course, sings a couple of songs.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

A Soldier’s Story was a really nice surprise — an effective and entertaining movie that sheds light into a neglected chapter in American history, and it will certainly help educate the audience. The movie won three Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture of the year, and it remains one of the most successful stage-to-screen adaptations from the 1980s. Highly recommended! Color, 101 minutes, Rated PG.

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