Once upon a time (in the west, to be sure) Malaika picked an early Denzel Washington flick (though the lead role is played by Howard E. Rollins) in A Soldier’s Story, directed by Norman Jewison, and now that I’ve caught it on my DVR, I’m going to live-review it. If there was a short that week, well, only time-travel or a memory better than mine will restore that.
The film opens with an older Army officer (Sergeant Waters) stumbling drunk out of a nightclub. I don’t think things are looking up for this guy. Um, yup, not looking good. We come back to him to find his face bloodied, and he tells an unseen gun-wielding assailant that “They still hate you!” before being shot twice.
Captain Davenport (Rollins) shows up to the Louisiana fort where the murder occurred, sent by Army higher-ups to investigate the incident, though he faces some resistance from the exclusively white officers because of his skin color. Actually, they’re douchebags to him. But he seems completely unfazed by not only that but also the bizarre movie soundtrack, a quasi-electronic zippy keyboard mess that belongs in no film ever, much less a WWII-era military crime film and veritably screams “Hey, this movie was made in 1984!” Davenport begins his investigation by interviewing the late Sergeant’s platoon, which was largely composed of players from baseball’s Negro leagues – Waters acted as a coach for them in what appear to have been traveling Army exhibition games.
First interviewed is Private Wilkie, whom Waters at one point busted down to Private for being drunk on guard duty. Waters also riled Wilkie by encouraging integration with whites and telling Wilkie that not having is no excuse for not getting. Wilkie didn’t much seem to like that attitude.
Next is Private Peterson, a Hollywood-born kid who admits outwardly that he didn’t like Waters, because he blatantly reversed the negative in one baseball scene causing the players to have their numbers on backwards. It also might have had something to do with the fact that the Sergeant kicked his ass for insubordination. Seems the Sergeant wasn’t a real popular guy among his troops.
With our backstory firmly established and the soundtrack now reverted to some more standard string arrangements, Captain Davenport heads back to his barracks only to have one of the fort’s Captains attempt to get him off of the case. You see, two white officers are suspected by the local Army boys, as they have admitted to fighting with Waters that evening. Waters was apparently killed by two Army-issue slugs, though the two officers have an apparent alibi. Still, the Army’s “KKK theory” is only to keep the black troops from rioting if white officers are convicted of the murder. The Army is trying to hush this thing up, and having a black Captain investigating the case is making it all a bit uncomfortable.
So we get another interview – Private Henson. Consistent with the general feeling of he platoon, Henson didn’t like Waters either, based on how Waters handled a situation where popular platoon member C.J. Memphis was accused of a shooting a year before despite the insistence that he was in the barracks all night. Memphis was eventually exonerated of the shooting charge, but Waters stuck him with striking a superior officer – which he did do when provoked during the original arrest. This leads to yet another interview – Cobb, C.J.’s best friend. (Interview after interview it becomes more and more apparent that the film was adapted from a stage play. The sets are, shall we say, minimalist.) Waters, it turns out, intentionally got C.J. imprisoned so that there would be “one less fool like you for the race to be ashamed of.” In response to that, C.J. killed himself, which is a rather foolish thing to do over being called a fool and may have proven the point. After this, the baseball team was broken up and Waters apparently stayed drunk most of the time.
Well, it turns out that Private Wilkie planted evidence against C.J. on Waters’ instructions, telling him that he’d get his stripes back if he did it. Waters had it out for black “fools” because he felt they were going to cheat the black race out of the respect they deserved – he had in fact killed a man in WWI France for allowing himself to be paraded around like a monkey. And finally, when the uninterviewed Private Smalls tries to go AWOL the truth comes out – on the night of the murder, Peterson and Smalls were on guard duty, found Waters drunk, and Peterson killed him out of vengeance for C.J. I suppose that outcome was not terribly surprising. The Army wraps things up and the credits roll.
And I come away from it with the same feeling that I had the first time – that it was a pretty underwhelming movie. I mean, this was nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, but it was pretty obvious from the first few interviews that it was Waters’ own troops, not the white officers, that killed him. I don’t know, it wasn’t a complete waste of time, but at the same time it wasn’t really anything special – felt more like a made-for-TV movie than a theatrical release, you know?
I know, I know. It’s supposed to be a deep movie, and say a lot about race relations in the 1940s and confront issues surrounding things like whether a black man could have plausibly accused a white man of killing another black man, and whether his color is going to bias him so that he can’t discover the actual (black) killer. OK, I get it. It just falls flat, that’s all.