Soldier’s Story, A (1984): Best Picture Oscar Nominee about Racism in the Military

Columbia (Caldix Films Production)

Directed by Norman Jewison, A Soldier’s Story is a thriller and courtroom drama, based upon Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Off Broadway production A Soldier’s Play.

It revolves around a black officer, who is sent to investigate the murder of a black sergeant in World War II.

A problem-oriented feature deals with racism in a segregated regiment of the U.S Army commanded by white officers, a time and place where a black officer is bitterly resented by everyone.

The film was first shown at the Toronto Film Fest and won the Golden Prize at the Moscow Film Fest.

The play had previously won the New York Drama Critics Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Theater Club Award, and three Obie Awards.

The tale is set in 1944 during World War II, beginning with Vernon Waters, a master sergeant in a company of black soldiers, being shot to death with a .45 caliber pistol outside Fort Neal, a segregated Army base in Louisiana. Most assume Waters was killed by the local Ku Klux Klan, but others are doubtful.

Captain Richard Davenport, a black officer from the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, is sent to investigate, against the wishes of commanding officer Colonel Nivens.

Nivens gives Davenport three days to conduct his investigation. Even Captain Taylor, the only white officer, is uncooperative and patronizing, fearing black officer will have little success. While some black soldiers are proud to see one of their own wearing captain’s bars, others are distrustful and evasive.

Davenport learns that Waters’ company was officially part of the 221st Chemical Smoke Generator Battalion; they are assigned menial jobs in deference to their white counterparts. Most are former players from the Negro baseball league, grouped as a unit to play ball with Waters as manager. Their success against white soldiers increases their popularity; there’s talk of exhibition game against the New York Yankees.

James Wilkie, a fellow sergeant Waters demoted for being drunk on duty, describes Waters as strict disciplinarian, but also fair, good-natured NCO. Davenport uncovers Waters’ true tyrannical nature and his disgust with fellow black soldiers, particularly those from the rural South.

Private Peterson reveals he stood up to Waters when he berated the men after a winning game. Waters challenged Peterson to a fight and beat him badly.

Interviewing other soldiers, Davenport learns that Waters charged C.J. with the murder of a white MP, after a search conducted by Wilkie turned up a recently discharged pistol under C.J.’s bunk. Waters provoked C.J. into striking him, whereupon the weapons charge was dismissed and C.J. was charged with striking a superior officer.

When C.J.’s best friend Corporal Cobb visits him in jail, C.J. is suffering from claustrophobia and tells Cobb of a visit from Waters, who admitted it was a set-up Waters had done to others. Davenport learns that C.J., awaiting trail, hanged himself. In protest, the platoon deliberately lost the season’s last game, and Waters was shaken by the suicide.

Davenport learns that white officers Captain Wilcox and Lieutenant Byrd had an altercation with Waters before his death. They admit to assaulting Waters when he confronted them in a drunken tirade, but deny killing him. Taylor is convinced Wilcox and Byrd are lying, but Davenport releases them.

Privates Peterson and Smalls go AWOL, and Davenport forces Wilkie to admit he planted the gun under C.J.’s bunk on Waters’ orders. Waters had divulged his internalized racism to Wilkie, revealing that during World War I, he helped lynch a black soldier who acted as an Uncle Tom to French civilians.

Realizing Peterson and Smalls were on guard duty the night of Waters’ murder, and thus had been issued .45 ammunition for their pistols, Davenport interrogates Smalls, found by the MPs. Smalls confesses Peterson killed Sergeant Waters, as revenge for C.J.’s death. Captured and brought to the interrogation room, Peterson confesses to the murder, saying “I didn’t kill much. Some things need getting rid of.”

Taylor congratulates Davenport, admitting he will have to get used to Negroes being in charge. Davenport assures Taylor, “You can bet your ass on that,” he adds, as the platoon marches in preparation for their deployment to Europe.

Oscar nominations: 3

Picture, produced by Norman Jewison, Roland L. Schwary, and Patrick Palmer
Screenplay (Adapted): Charles Fuller
Supporting Actor: Adolph Caesar

Oscar awards: None

Oscar Context

The big Oscar winner in 1984 was “Amadeus,” which swept most of the awards, including Peter Shaffer’s screenplay. The winner of the Supporting Actor Oscar was Haing S. Ngor for “The Killing Fields.”

Though “A Soldier’s Story” was nominated for Best Picture, its director, Norman Jewison, was not.

Howard E. Rollins Jr. as Capt. Davenport
Adolph Caesar as Sgt. Waters
Art Evans as Pvt. Wilkie
David Alan Grier as Cpl. Cobb
David Harris as Pvt. Smalls
Dennis Lipscomb as Capt. Taylor
Larry Riley as C.J. Memphis
Robert Townsend as Cpl. Ellis
Denzel Washington as Pfc. Peterson
William Allen Young as Pvt. Henson
John Hancock as Sgt. Washington
Patti LaBelle as Big Mary
Trey Wilson as Col. Nivens
Wings Hauser as Lt. Byrd