Monday, April 21, 2008

A Soldier's Story

A Soldier's Story, a 1984 film about racial segregation in World War II, is a mystery in several ways. Most obviously, it is a film in which an military investigator seeks to discover who murdered the friendless Sargent Waters on a foggy night right outside camp. Did a local member of the Ku Klux Klan kill the black soldier as a "get out of Louisiana" message aimed at the African Americans in training? Did a white officer who felt Waters was disrespectful shoot him? Could it have been one of his own men, all of whom came from the Negro baseball league?

The other mystery is how so few of us remembered A Soldier's Story, which was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play and nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Out of nineteen people at the Thomas Ford Memorial Library's showing of the film, only one had seen it when it was released twenty-four years ago. It was really quiet good. How had it been forgotten?

The story follows Captain Davenport, an African American investigator well played by Howard E. Rollins, Jr., as he questions anyone who knew the victim. Among the men from the company that he interviews is Private First Class Peterson, played by a very young Denzel Washington. In flashbacks, Waters is played by Adolph Caesar, who was nominated as best supporting actor.

The film has a very theatrical quality, as one might expect from a movie based on a play. At points lighting spotlights characters telling their memories. Dialogue has a scripted and quotable feel that one used to find in movies. It also seems almost like a musical, as it starts with Patti LaBelle as Big Mary singing in the local colored bar, and several other scenes follow with Larry Riley as C. J. Memphis singing in the mess hall or back in the bar.

A Soldier's Story was a good choice for our discussion group. We talked about the characters and the mystery first. Then we discussed the segregation of the American military until 1948 and the importance of military integration for the civil rights movement that followed. I recommend the film to film fans and other libraries holding discussions.

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