Racing around the issue of race.
Given the weird situation we find ourselves in here in the US, with respect to race, it's no surprise that there are about thirty chords square of American films which deal with race as a central issue. Some of them are wonderful, and some well…some suck. A Soldier's Story is one of the best I've ever seen, because it really shows how many different directions a person can wrap themselves around the race pole when they strike it at high speed.
This film is also interesting in that it's a sort of The Outsiders for young black male actors, in that a number of it's actors were later to become quite well known stars. In particular Robert Townshend (Hollywood Shuffle, The Five Heartbeats, Bliss), Denzel Washington (Malcolm X, Philadelphia, Devil in a Blue Dress), and David Alan Grier (Jumanji, Blankman, Stuart Little) have become quite well known these days. But, at the time, they were no one special, and hence they don't get any particular billing. Howard Rollins, Jr. and Adolph Caesar get the star billing on this one.
Captain Davenport, played by Howard Rollins (Drunks, Ragtime, On the Block), arrives in a small southern town in the war years, to investigate a murder of a black officer from the local base. Being the '40s and being in the Deep South, killings of black soldiers from the base is not unheard of. Between vengeful white officers and the Klan, and a tendency to sweep such issues under the rug, it's assumed that this investigation will just be another dead end formalism.
So the local base commander is surprised when the investigating officer, a Navy lawyer, is a black officer, the first he's ever seen. Actually, this is the first black officer that anyone on the base has ever seen. It quickly becomes apparent that Davenport isn't going to sweep this one under the rug, and few people have any doubts about who done it. A couple white officers were known to have had an altercation with the victim that night, and were known to have been issued firearms that night.
But, of course, it's not as simple as it seems. As Davenport begins his investigations, and interviews more and more people, he discovers that the victim, Sergeant Waters played by Adolph Caesar (Club Paradise, The Color Purple, The Hitter), is a complex person who is both easy to hate and easy to pity. Waters, a WWI veteran, is the commanding officer of a ball playing squad. Since blacks at this time weren't allowed to fight, this squad is made up of gifted athletes who play for the army against other armed forces teams.
As we come to know Waters better, we see how his life has been incredibly twisted by the racism that he and his father endured, to the point that he is as racist against his own people as any Klansman. Beaten into him by his father is the belief that he must be better than white people, and that "Uncle Toms" are the enemy of the black race, attracting ridicule from whites and holding back the race. We find that in France in the previous war, that he and others had killed numerous fellow black soldiers who were seen as embarrassing throwbacks. This life has left Waters bitter and self-hating, and he takes this out on his squad, eventually causing the death of one of their own.
So Davenport begins to see that almost everyone on base could have had reason to kill Waters, either out of racism or from being tormented by Water's own inward looking bigotry. As he digs deeper, the story just gets more and more muddied, and everyone's natural inclination to blame the white officers or local Klansmen threatens to hide the real truth. Eventually though, the truth is uncovered and the real culprits are uncovered.
The anamorphic 1.85:1 video quality is quite good overall. It's not reference quality, but it doesn't have any significant problems that would distract you from the action. It's a little fuzzy in places, but nothing too bad.
The audio is just plain Jane Dolby 2.0. This is a little unfortunate since it has enough surround action to have benefited from a 5.1 sound track. But, it's not bad as 2.0 soundtracks go. Certainly, relative to the quality of the story content, I'm not going to whine about it.
The extras include a commentary track by director Norman Jewison. This is one of the better commentaries I've heard. He keeps to the subject, discusses what drives the characters, and gives good insights to the making and casting of the film. There is also a nice historical featurette about blacks in the military during the period portrayed by this film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There isn't much bad to say about this film, or the DVD it comes on. The acting is a little light in a couple places, since a number of the actors are early in their career, but it's no biggie. And of course we would've preferred a 5.1 sound track as an option.
This film deals pretty frankly with race, and very purposefully plays our own bigotries against us. Racially uptight people on both sides of the line might be made uncomfortable at this or that point in the story.
I recommend this one highly. I think it's a good thing to have uncomfortably powerful films like this in our faces once in a while. It makes us think, and gets us out of our social ruts. It's easy in this day and age to forget how far we've come, across the mere forty something years ago when this story took place, and how far we have yet to go.
And, though it's a pretty heavy flick, it is not without humor and has some good rockin' blues provided by Patty Labelle and others. Racial tension didn't occur in a vacuum. It happened within the context of real lives, and it is important not to ignore either aspect if you want a well-rounded story.
Acquitted, except for those guys who killed Sgt. Waters.
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Scales of Justice
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