A Soldier’s Story is a film Norman Jewison made in 1984, which was based on the play A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller. Fuller’s play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and remains his best-known work, no doubt due to the film adaptation, which Fuller also wrote. The film is kind of a companion piece to Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, which was probably his best film— both films concern a black officer coming to the South and investigating a murder.
The film is set on a segregated military base in 1944 and begins when a Black sergeant is shot dead near the base. Howard E. Rollins Jr.’s Richard Davenport is sent to investigate, but faces distrust from both the Black and white officers. Everybody just assumes that the local chapter of the KKK is behind the murder. The most interesting aspect of the film is not the murder, but the treatment of the Black soldiers who signed up to serve their country. The majority of the Black battalion are baseball players, and they are basically used as the competition in Army baseball matches.
It’s a well-intended, left-leaning drama, with some great performances and something to say about race relations in America, much like In the Heat of the Night. The difference is that racism is at the centre of the investigation, not the conflict impeding it. Fuller, like Claire Denis with Beau Travail, used Herman Meville’s Billy Budd as a basis for his very different take on the same literary inspiration. As is typical with Jewison’s films, the performances from the cast are rock solid, from Howard E. Rollins Jr. and Adolph Caesar to a very young Denzel Washington in only his second film. Even this early in his career, Washington has a command of the screen that outshines even some of the greatest actors.
It may not be one of my favourite films from Norman Jewison, but it’s an impressive work, even if its roots on stage are still evident on the screen. The baseball sequences feel like filler to make it seem more cinematic than it really is. They also completely stop the momentum of the film, I don’t know the play, so can’t comment on how expanded they are from the stage version. Jewison is helped enormously by the fact that Peter Weir’s go-to cinematographer Russell Boyd shot the film. They would reunite on Vietnam war vets drama In Country with Bruce Willis.
The disc isn’t hugely packed, but it contains the old commentary track from Jewison, a three-part interview with Jewison about his entire career made as the part of DP/30 series, and a short documentary about Black soldiers’ experiences during WW2. The original theatrical trailer and stills gallery finishes off the disc. The booklet contains a new essay by Molefi Kete Asante, extracts from Norman Jewison’s autobiography recounting the making of A Soldier’s Story, an archival interview with cinematographer Russell Boyd, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and the film credits.