A black Army investigator (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) travels to a remote military base in the heart of the Louisiana backwoods to look into the mysterious murder of a black sergeant toward the tail end of World War II. Once he arrives, the investigator discovers an Army regiment and an entire community that, despite the beginnings of integration, is still torn apart by race and segregation. He soon learns that on this base, trust is sparse and secrets are a currency all their own.
A Soldiers Story is a 1984 American drama film directed by Norman Jewison, based upon Charles Fullers Pulitzer Prize-winning Off Broadway production A Soldiers Play. A black officer is sent to investigate the murder of a black sergeant in Louisiana near the end of World War II. It is a story about racism and segregation in a black U.S Army regiment with white officers deep in the Jim Crow South, in a time and place where a black officer is unprecedented and bitterly resented by nearly everyone.
The film was first shown at the Toronto Film Festival. It won the New York Drama Critics Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Theater Club Award, and three Village Voice Obie Awards. It won the Golden Prize at the 14th Moscow International Film Festival. It was also nominated for three Academy Awards: for Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Adolph Caesar), and Screenplay Adaptation (Fuller).
In the towm of Tynen, Louisiana, a black Master Sergeant is found shot to death just outside the local Army Base. A military lawyer, also a black man, is sent from Washington to conduct an investigation. Facing an uncooperative chain of command and fearful black troops, Captain Davenport must battle with deceipt and prejudice in order to find out exactly who really did kill Sergeant Waters.
The time is 1944 during World War II. Vernon Waters (Adolph Caesar), the Army sergeant in charge of Company B, a platoon of black soldiers, is very drunk and staggering along a road along Fort Neal, a segregated Army base in Louisiana. Waters last words amidst his raucous laughter were "They still hate you! They still hate you!" before he is shot to death with a .45 caliber pistol.
When Waters body is found the next day, Captain Richard Davenport (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.), a black officer from the Judge Advocate General is sent to investigate, against the wishes of commanding officer Colonel Nivins (Trey Wilson). While the general consensus is that he was killed by local members of the Ku Klux Klan, others are doubtful, having heard that Waters stripes and insignia were still on his uniform and aware that the Klans typical M.O. is to remove them before lynching their victims.
From the outset, Davenport is faced with obstacles. Colonel Nivins will only give him three days to conduct his investigation. Even Captain Taylor (Dennis Lipscomb), the one white officer in favor of a full investigation, is uncooperative and patronizing, fearing that a black officer will have little success in catching those responsible. While some black soldiers are happy and proud to see one of their own race wearing captains bars, others are distrustful and evasive.
Davenport learns that the platoon was officially tasked as the 221st Chemical Smoke Generating Company and while they are eager to serve their country overseas, they are often assigned menial jobs in deference to their white counterparts. However, they have also found a good deal of popularity and triumph as a tight-knit baseball team playing against white soldiers, and there is even talk of the platoon playing against the New York Yankees in an exhibition game.
James Wilkie (Art Evans), a fellow sergeant whom Waters recently demoted to private for being drunk on duty, initially portrays Waters as just, good-natured and that he got on well with the men, especially the jovial and well-liked C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley) But as Davenport probes deeper, he uncovers Waters true tyrannical nature and his disgust with his fellow black soldiers, particularly those from the rural South.
An interview with Private Peterson (Denzel Washington) revealed how he stood up to Waters when he berated the men after another winning game. In retaliation, the sergeant challenged Peterson to a fight and beat him badly. Davenport then learns through interviews with other soldiers how Waters charged C.J. with the murder of a white MP, after a search conducted by Wilkie turned up a recently discharged pistol under C.J.s bunk. Confronting him with the evidence, Waters provoked C.J. into striking him, whereupon the weapons charge was dismissed and C.J. was then charged with striking a superior officer.
When C.J.s best friend Bernard Cobb (David Alan Grier) visits him in jail, C.J. is suffering from intense claustrophobia and tells Cobb of a visit from Sgt. Waters, who admitted freely to C.J. that it was a set-up and that Waters had done it at least five times before to others like him, saying "the Black race cant afford you no more...the day of the Geechee is gone, boy. And youre going with it." When Davenport asked Corporal Cobb what happened to C.J., he is told that the man hanged himself in his cell while awaiting trial. In protest, the platoon threw the last game of the season, while Waters was left profoundly shaken by the suicide.
Davenport then finds out that two white officers coming from a military exercise, Captain Wilcox (Scott Paulin) and Lieutenant Byrd (Wings Hauser), had an altercation with the drunk sergeant a short time before his death. When questioned, both officers admit to physical assault when confronted by Waters on a drunken tirade, but deny killing him, revealing that they had not been issued .45 ammunition for the exercise as it was in short supply and it was reserved for MPs and soldiers on special duty. Though Taylor is convinced that Wilcox and Byrd are lying and is eager to arrest them, Davenport releases them.
While a search has begun for Privates Peterson and Smalls who have both gone AWOL, Davenport questions Wilkie once more, and the demoted private is forced to admit that he planted the gun under C.J.s bunk on Waters orders. Though he hid it from everyone, Waters divulged in private to Wilkie his intense hatred of C.J. and others like him whom Waters felt were an unwelcome weight on the Black race. Davenport then asks why Waters didnt go after Peterson since they had the fight, and Wilkie tells him that Waters liked Peterson because he fought back and was planning to promote him. Davenport has Wilkie placed under arrest just as an impromptu celebration has begun outside after learning that the platoon is to be shipped out to join the fight overseas.
Realizing that Peterson and Smalls were on guard duty the night of Waters murder, and thus had been issued .45 ammunition for their pistols, Davenport interrogates Smalls after he has been found by the MPs and Smalls confesses that it was Peterson who killed Sergeant Waters, as revenge for C.J. When Peterson is captured and brought into the interrogation room, he confesses to the murder, saying "I didnt kill much. Some things need getting rid of."
The film ends with Taylor congratulating Davenport on getting his man and admitting that he will have to get used to Negroes being in charge. Davenport assures Taylor that hell get used to it. "You can bet your ass on that," he adds, as the platoon marches in preparation for their deployment to the European Theater.
Art Evans plays Private Wilkie, a nervous man too acquiescent for his own good. David Alan Grier plays C.J.s closest friend, bonded by their Mississippi roots. Denzel Washington, in one of his earliest motion picture roles, portrays the deeply embittered Pfc. Peterson.Howard E. Rollins, Jr. as Capt. Davenport
Adolph Caesar as Sgt. Waters
Art Evans as Pvt. Wilkie
David Alan Grier as Cpl. Cobb
David Harris as Pvt. Smalls
Dennis Lipscomb as Capt. Taylor
Larry Riley as C.J. Memphis
Robert Townsend as Cpl. Ellis
Denzel Washington as Pfc. Peterson
William Allen Young as Pvt. Henson
John Hancock as Sgt. Washington
Patti LaBelle as Big Mary
Trey Wilson as Col. Nivens
Wings Hauser as Lt. Byrd
Jewison and many of the cast members worked for scale or less under a tight budget with Columbia Pictures. "No one really wanted to make this movie... a black story, it was based on World War II, and those themes were not popular at the box office", according to Jewison. Warner Bros. turned it down, as did Universals president, Ned Tanen, and UA and MGM followed suit. Columbias Frank Price read the screenplay and was deeply interested, but the studio was hesitant about its commercial value, so Jewison offered to do the film for a $5 million budget and no salary. When the Directors Guild of America insisted he must have a fee, he agreed to take the lowest possible amount. The film ended up grossing $22.1 million.
Howard E. Rollins, Jr. had just received an Oscar nomination for his role in Ragtime and was cast as the lead. Most of the cast came from Broadway careers, but only Adolph Caesar, Denzel Washington, and William Allen Young appeared in both the movie and the original off-Broadway play with the Negro Ensemble Company in the New York version.
A Soldiers Story was shot entirely in Arkansas. The "Tynin" exterior scenes were shot in three days in Clarendon. The baseball sequence was filmed in Little Rock at the historic Lamar Porter Field.
Bill Clinton (then Governor of Arkansas) dropped by during the shooting. He became very enthused about the project and later helped by providing the Arkansas Army National Guard in full regalia for a grand scene, since Jewison could not afford to pay an army of extras. Production was completed with their help at Fort Chaffee United States Army Ready Reserve base at Fort Smith (where Elvis Presley entered the military and received his first haircut).
Herbie Hancock delivered an interpretative impromptu score. Patti Labelle and Larry Riley, who plays guitar, wrote and performed their own songs. The blues played a large role in the films music.
Unfortunately there was no known consideration given to the production of an official soundtrack due to the aforementioned budgetary restraints—this, despite the films relative box office success.Edgar Award, Best Motion Picture Screenplay – Charles Fuller
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, Best Supporting Actor – Adolph Caesar
14th Moscow International Film Festival – Golden Prize
NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture
Academy Award for Best Picture
Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Drama
Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures – Norman Jewison
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor – Adolph Caesar
Golden Globe Award Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture – Adolph Caesar
Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay – Charles Fuller
Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay - Motion Picture – Charles Fuller
Writers Guild of America for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium – Charles Fuller
Mississippi Burning (1988). Denzel Washington appears in A Soldiers Story and Glory. Denzel Washington appears in A Soldiers Story and Remember the Titans. Proud (2004). Adolph Caesar appears in A Soldiers Story and The Color Purple.