"A Soldier's Story," directed by Norman Jewison, tells a very powerful and tragic tale of black racism in WWII America. It is equally puzzling and disturbing and will leave you thinking about it for a long time to come.
The story takes place at a military base in the American South during the last full year of the Second World War, in 1944. Sergeant Vernon Waters, a Black man, is shot to death. The locals, as well as the Black enlisted men at the base, believe it to be the work of the Ku Klux Klan. Captain Davenport, also a Black man, as well as the first Black officer most of the men at this base have ever seen, is asked to investigate this. The White officers all want to see this matter brought to a swift and tidy conclusion in order to prevent what they see as a potential race riot between the Black soldiers and local Whites around town.
Davenport (deftly played by the late Howard E. Rollins Jr.) questions the enlisted men at the base, and begins to learn that the murdered sergeant(Adolph Ceaser in an Oscar-nominated performance) had no shortage of enemies, White and Black.
Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Waters is a man of great personal pride and dignity, a man who believes that the African-American race has great potential to "take it's rightful place in history" alongside the White race in America. But his pride is also fueled by a terrible hatred of Black men, mostly Southern men, who he believes are hurting the race by presenting themselves as lower-class bumpkins; the stereotypical shiftless, lazy, ignorant types; the smiling, singing clowns; the "yassah-boss niggers."
One soldier, C.J. Memphis, a simple but charming, illiterate, guitar-strumming man, comes to personify these character traits in Waters' eyes. The clash between those two personalities is a crucial centerpiece to this movie's message.
Ceaser is astonishing as Waters, a man so full of loathing and bile towards his own people, you can feel it oozing off the screen. His best moment occurs in a bar where he stares into a mirror and talks in a dark tone about his unit's heroic efforts in France in the First World War, and how one Black soldier destroyed that sterling image in the minds of many White Frenchmen.....and what Waters did in response. It's chilling.
An undervalued film that you may have to look a little harder in your local video store to find, but well worth the effort!