A Soldier's Story is a 1984 drama film directed by Norman Jewison. It is a story about racism and segregation in a black army regiment with white officers deep in the Jim Crow South. A black officer investigates a murder of a black non-commissioned officer on an army base in Louisiana near the end of World War II, a time and place where no one had ever seen a black officer. Starting with a tiny but pithy clue of the sergeant's last moments and last words, the movie is a powerful thriller and historical drama.
A Soldier's 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
; Governor Bill Clinton
had dropped by during the shooting. He became very enthused about the project and later helped by availing the Arkansas 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 of Fort Smith (where Elvis Presley
had done his basic training), and the movie opened on September 14, 1984.
The movie was adapted by Charles Fuller
from his play, A Soldier's Play
, an off-Broadway play from 1981 which won the Pulitzer Prize
for drama in 1982. The movie, first shown at the Toronto Film Festival
, won the New York Drama Critics
Award, the Outer Critics Circle
Award, the Theater Club
Award, and three Village Voice Obie Awards
. It was also nominated for three Academy Awards
for Picture, Supporting Actor, and Screenplay Adaptation. Despite the accolades, Jewison and many of the cast members had 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" (Norman Jewison
). Warner Brothers
turned it down, as did Universal
's president, Ned Tanen
, and UA
followed suit. Columbia's Frank Price
read the screenplay and was deeply interested, but the studio was hesitant towards the 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.
Howard E. Rollins, Jr. had just had an Oscar nomination for his role in Ragtime and was cast as the lead. Most of the cast came from Broadway careers, but only William Allen Young appeared in both the movie and the original off-Broadway play with the Negro Ensemble Companyin the New York version.
Adolph Caesar embodies the dangers of W.E.B. DuBois' double consciousness in a Napoleonic performance which resulted in an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. A light-skinned Negro sergeant with a deep internalization of racism and pathological hatred of Southern blacks, the sergeant ruthlessly heaps abuse upon his men. He calls them all "worthless geechees" but he mostly relishes on torturing the jovial and highly talented C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley). The sergeant asks C.J. "Whatever a low-class ignorant geechee like you has to say ain't worth paying attention to, is it?" and while C.J. acquiesces, the peaceful character feels sorry for his sergeant, perceptively deducing that "Any man ain't sure where he belong gotta be in a whole lotta pain."
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. Robert Townsend also co-stars. Denzel Washington, in his first role in a big Hollywood production, plays the deeply embittered Pfc. Peterson.
delivered an interpretative impromptu score. Patti Labelle
and Larry Riley
wrote and performed their own songs. The blues plays a large role in the film's music.
- Howard E. Rollins Jr., Capt. Davenport
- Adolph Caesar, Sgt. Waters
- Art Evans, Pvt. Wilkie
- David Alan Grier, Cpl. Cobb
- David Harris, Pvt. Smalls
- Dennis Lipscomb, Capt. Taylor
- Larry Riley, C.J. Memphis
- Robert Townsend, Cpl. Ellis
- Denzel Washington, Pfc. Peterson
- William Allen Young, Pvt. Henson
- John Hancock, Sgt. Washington
- Patti LaBelle, Big Mary
- Trey Wilson, Col. Nivens
- Wings Hauser, Lt. Byrd