School is coming back into session, the leaves are beginning to turn colors, the weather is getting cooler (well, not in LA, but most everywhere else), and the football season has started. Now comes the final sign of the approach of autumn and the recession of summer: serious Hollywood movies. Hollywood release patterns have a certain bizarre sense to them. According to the studios' wisdom, people want slambang action in the summer, more of the same at Christmas, they won't see anything, no matter what, in winter, and their minds turn to serious things in fall. Well, I guess it works, but it sure sounds strange to me. At any rate, here's the season's first serious film, with a capital S: A Soldier's Story.
A Soldier's Story is a real Hollywood rarity: a film about blacks. Moreover, it is a serious film and tries to deal with important issues of prejudice. The story is set in 1944, at an Army training post in the deep south. This post is reserved for training the army's black soldiers, segregated into separate units, lead by white officers and black NCOs. The most senior of those black NCOs is Sgt. Waters. Waters is a career army man who has developed a deep hatred for the type of black man he sees as a shame to his race. This translates to most blacks from the deep south. Early in the film, Waters is murdered. The officer Washington sends to investigate is Capt. Davenport, one of the army's very few black officers. His appointment is seen by the white officers as a dangerous choice, as the superficial evidence points to the Ku Klux Klan, and the more hidden clues suggest some of those white officers.
Davenport isn't willing to settle for easy answers. He wants nothing less than the truth. His investigations uncover just what a damaged man Waters was, and the harm he did to others. Eventually, the truth is revealed. The black units finally are sent off to fight Hitler, as they all lust to do, to prove their worth. (The stage play from which this film was adapted chillingly undercut their eagerness with the revelation that the company we follow will be wiped out to the last man. The film abandons that twist, and ends on a cheery gungho note that seems incongruous for this day and age.)
The film's most important point is that the pernicious activities of racism are not carried out just by the oppressors. The oppressed can catch the infection and be just as cruel and destructive towards members of their own race, in an attempt to please, or impress, or rebut, those who malign them. This is an fresh and important idea, but cloaking it in a not terribly interesting murder mystery was a mistake. The story would be better told linearly than in flashback, particularly because Davenport, the framing character, is severely underwritten. We learn too little about him, so he remains an enigma, rather than serving as the unifying device, as was probably intended. We are missing the scenes that tell us what his convictions are, leaving him with little but a vague nobleness.
Howard E. Rollins, Jr., who was excellent in Ragtime, does what he can with Davenport, but the picture belongs to Adolph Caesar as Sgt. Waters. This is one of the finest performances of the year. Caesar gradually peels back the layers of Waters' character, revealing how he became what he was, and what it has cost him. His triumph is making us pity a man whose actions are too frequently calculated to destroy others. The supporting actors, mostly black, are all quite good.
Norman Jewison, the film's director, shares the blame with Charles Fuller, the screenwriter (and original playwright) for what fails to click in A Soldier's Story. Jewison has a long history of tackling socially relevant subjects, going back to In the Heat of the Night in the 60s. Unfortunately, Jewison almost always winds up capitalizing all his points. When he gets hold of a subject he really cares about, subtlety is tossed madly out the window. He is to be praised for his persistence in getting the film made, and his desire to make a film on an important subject, and for giving a lot of talented and underutilized black actors some exposure. Unfortunately, what he actually did behind the camera is steadfastly average.
A Soldier's Story is worth seeing, if only for Caesar's performance. It has other virtues, particularly its subject matter. As far as execution goes, though, it is unremarkable. Not bad at all, but not special. Most films which fit into this category never had an opportunity to be much better, so the artistic failures of A Soldier's Story are particularly disappointing, as it could have been one of the best films of the year.
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