A Soldier’s Story uses themes of race to solve a murder mystery. Director Norman Jewison tackled a similar story decades before with the Best Picture winning In the Heat of the Night. A Soldier’s Story was only nominated for Best Picture, but my mom strongly recommended I watch it. Despite his previous success, A Soldier’s Story was something of a calculated risk for being predominantly black and dealing with World War II. Of course it became just as popular as the original A Soldier’s Play that it’s based on. Most of the play’s cast reprised their roles. Including Denzel Washington in his second film role as a rebellious soldier.
Washington would later win for a similar role, but it was Adolph Caesar who got all the Oscar attention. He plays the murdered Army Sergeant of an all-black company of soldiers that spends more time playing on the Negro league than seeing combat. Through flashbacks we see Caesar’s complex performance as a cruel drill instructor with internally racist views of some of his men. There’s plenty of white on black hate, but the movie is more about black on black hate. After his role in Ragtime, Howard Rollins was cast as the black superior officer Captain Davenport who was sent to investigate the murder.
Like In the Heat of the Night, Davenport faces resistance from Colonel Nivens, but cooperation from Captain Taylor. Davenport questions the soldiers including Washington’s resentful Peterson, Art Evans’ brown-nosing Wilkie, William Allen Young’s resistant Henson, David Harris’ nervous Smalls, and David Alan Grier’s friendly Cobb. Robert Townsend is another comedian who gives the film some levity. Meanwhile, Patti LaBelle gives the film some soul. Larry Riley stands out the most as the simple good-natured country boy C.J. Memphis who plays a key role in the mystery. The perpetrator didn’t surprise me, but the nuanced way to get there makes A Soldier’s Story work.