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Film / A Soldier's Story

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"The worst thing you can do, in this part of the country, is pay too much attention to the death of a negro under mysterious circumstances."
Colonel Nivens

A 1984 wartime drama/mystery film directed by Norman Jewison, A Soldier's Story was adapted by screenwriter Charles Fuller from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 off-Broadway play A Soldier's Play, which was also a loose Setting Update of Billy Budd. The film stars Howard E. Rollins Jr. and Adolph Caesar, with a supporting cast that includes Denzel Washington, Dennis Lipscomb, Art Evans, Larry Riley, and David Alan Grier; Caesar, Washington, and Riley had all originated their roles in the play. Jazz great Herbie Hancock composed the film's score.

The setting is the segregated black U.S. Army base of Fort Neal, Louisiana in 1944, during World War II. Master Sergeant Vernon Waters (Caesar) has been murdered by an unknown shooter. Captain Richard Davenport (Rollins) is sent in from the JAG Corps to investigate the killing. At first, the Ku Klux Klan or racist white soldiers are suspected of the crime. Through his investigation, Davenport discovers the truth that racism indeed played a part, but not in the way he was expecting...


A Soldier's Tropes:

  • An Aesop:
    • Racism is destructive and blacks will get the worst of it.
    • Racism not only elevates Whites over the Blacks, it drives Blacks as the second-class citizens to fight among themselves over who's really Black or not.
    • Davenport angrily condemns Peterson for killing Waters at the end of the investigation, but when left alone discovers to his horror that he's also judging Peterson in the same way, and suffers a minor Heroic BSoD for it.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "Who gave you the right to judge? To decide who is fit to be a Negro... and who is not?"
  • Arc Words: Sgt. Waters' last words, "They still hate you!"
  • Asshole Victim: The film opens with Sgt. Waters' death, and there is initial shock, horror and concern at the event. As the story unfolds and his character is revealed, it shifts into this trope.
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  • Berserk Button: Sgt. Waters hates "geechies".
  • Bring It: "You wanna hit ole Sgt. Waters?"
  • Boomerang Bigot: Deconstructed with Sgt. Waters. He spent his life emulating the racist whites around him. He realizes the futility of it just as he's about to be killed.
  • Butt-Monkey: Wilkie is first seen being ridiculed (not maliciously) by the other men. Later his role is more dramatic when he's dragged into framing C.J. by Waters.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Sgt. Waters gets the upper-hand in his fist-fight with Peterson by throwing dirt in his eyes.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Davenport is more of the dry variety of sarcasm.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • It turns out that Sgt. Waters set up C.J. because he thought C.J. was being a stereotypical "Geechee". He even reveals to C.J. that he has done this before to others under his command.
    • While the black soldier in Paris accepting payment to dress up and behave like a monkey was an ignorant choice on his part that reflected poorly on the other black soldiers, Sgt. Waters and some fellow soldiers decide to punish him by slitting his throat.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Why Sgt. Waters was killed.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Sgt. Waters.
  • Driven to Suicide: C.J. Memphis.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Sgt. Waters after driving C.J. to suicide.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: When Davenport learns that no one but MP patrols were issued .45 ammunition.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Sgt. Waters may have been a cruel man who framed C.J. But he never intended for the young man to take his own life.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Captain Wilcox stood by while Waters got shoved around by his friend and subjected to racial slurs (although he doesn't use any himself) and seems uncomfortable being questioned by a black man, but insists that he's a doctor, and that he didn't kill Waters, and takes his oath as a doctor seriously.
  • Heroic BSoD: Davenport when he realizes the tragedy of the case and how racism had driven C.J. to suicide, turned Waters into a hateful wretch, and turned Peterson into a murderer.
  • Jerkass: Sgt. Waters was a strict general who didn't hesitate to insult his men.
  • Nice Guy: C.J. was one of the nicest, kindest, and most sociable soldiers under Sgt. Waters. Which made Waters' set up of C.J. even more detestable.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Peterson calls Waters out early on for his Drill Sergeant Nasty treatment of the men, and Waters agrees to a "fair" fight with the other Colored troops to watch. Waters proceeds to cheat during the fight and pummels Peterson into unconsciousness.
  • No Respect Guy:
    • Davenport is on the receiving end of this by some of the White officers, first with Captain Taylor who didn't like an outsider taking over his investigation and later with the officers suspected in Waters' death. Justified given the racist time period.
    • Wilkie is this plus the resident Butt-Monkey.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Colonel Nivens is revealed to have kept crucial details from both Davenport and Taylor, due to not wanting to rile things up, and doesn't wan Davenport to investigate too much (especially if his investigation leads him to a white man) for the same reason.
  • Posthumous Character: Sgt. Waters is already dead by the movie's beginning. So is C.J.
  • The Reveal: Sgt. Waters was killed by one of his own men.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Davenport gives this to Peterson when the latter states that Waters deserved to die. Prompting Davenport to angrily ask what gave Peterson the right to judge who is Black or who isn't.
  • Stop Being Stereotypical: Sgt. Waters' reason for hating his men.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Davenport is forced to work with Captain Taylor, the White officer in charge of Waters' platoon and initially in charge of the investigation. Taylor is dismissive of Davenport because Taylor suspects two White officers, one of them a known racist, of Waters' death and because Taylor knows a Black officer in the 1940s could never bring charges against them. Subverted in that when presented with evidence and testimony by the two officers, Taylor wants to arrest them, while Davenport is only looking for justice.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: C.J.
  • Tragic Bigot: It's strongly hinted that Sgt. Waters' father is the reason for his hatred towards the black men he deems stereotypical. The moment before he is shot by Peterson, Waters is plain weeping out his frustration.
  • Uncle Tomfoolery: Waters despises this trope. He even tells a story of how he and some of his mates killed a black guy in France during World War I because he allowed whites to dress him like a monkey and live out every racist stereotype.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Waters is seen drunk in the aftermath of C.J.'s suicide, and when he is about to get killed by Peterson he descends into a rant about how he'd done terrible things to establish respect for black people, even through alienating his own race, and it was All for Nothing in the end..
  • Wham Line:
    • In the Cold Open.
      Waters: They still... hate YOU!!!
    • Wilkie on what Waters thought of C.J.
      Wilkie: He DESPISED him!
    • During the interrogation of Lt. Byrd.
      Byrd: We've been short on 45 caliber ammo for six months. It's for MPs and special duty people only.
  • Worthy Opponent: Turns out that Waters respected Peterson for standing up to him, and despite giving him a beatdown had planned on promoting him.