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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. 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 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...


This film provides examples of:

  • Armor-Piercing Question: "Who gave you the right to judge? To decide who is fit to be a Negro... and who is not?"
    • Peterson can't answer Davenport's question. But when Peterson is dragged off to jail for Waters' death, Davenport realizes to his horror he can't answer his own question, and starts crying.
  • Arc Words: Sgt. Waters' last words, "They still hate you!"
  • Asshole Victim: Sgt. Waters' actions led to C.J.'s suicide.
  • 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 was dragged into framing C.J. by Waters.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Was how Sgt. Waters got the upperhand against his fight with Peterson. By throwing dirt in his eyes.
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  • Deadpan Snarker: Davenport is more of the dry variety of sarcasm.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • It turns out that Sgt. Waters set up C.J. only 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.
    • As detestable as it was Sgt. Waters and his fellow soldiers took it too far for killing another black soldier just because the said soldier acted stereotypical because he was paid to.
  • 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.
  • Famous Last Words:
    Waters: They still... hate YOU!
  • Hannibal Lecture: Waters gives a disturbing monologue to Wilkie about how he got to be so hateful:
    Do you know the damage one ignorant Negro can do? We were in France in the First War. We'd won decorations, but the white boys had told all them French gals that we had tails. And they found this ignorant Colored soldier, paid him to tie a tail to his ass and run around half-naked making monkey sounds. They put him on a big round table in the Cafe Napoleon, put a reed in his hand, a crown on his head, blanket on his shoulders and made him eat bananas in front of all them Frenchies! The white boys danced and passed out leaflets with his picture on it. Called him "Moonshine, King of the Monkeys!"
    When we slit his throat, you know that fool asked us what he had done wrong...?
  • Heroic BSoD: Davenport when he realizes just how far racism had driven C.J. to suicide, Waters into a hated wretch, Peterson into a murderer... and himself having just judged Peterson the same way Peterson and Waters were judging others.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Cobbs and C.J. become this due to being from the South.
  • Jerkass: Sgt. Waters was a strict general who didn't hesitate to insult his men.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Private Wilkie explained that even with his harsh demeanor, Sgt. Waters was a good man. Subverted when it was discovered in Wilkie's flashback that the sergeant set up C.J. solely because he though the soldier was "stereotypical". Wilkie then explodes in frustration that Waters took his Sergeant's rank for something most superiors would ignore. "No! He wasn't a nice guy! You don't turn somebody in for that. You give extra duty. You chew 'em out. But three stripes.... It took me years to get them stripes." In fact, he was manipulated by Waters offering to give him his stripes back if he framed C.J.
  • Nice Guy: C.J. was one of the nicest, kindest, and sociable soldiers under Sgt. Waters. Which made Waters' set up of C.J. made the dead man 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. In his own twisted way, Waters respected Peterson for it and planned on promoting him.
  • 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.
  • Not So Different: Both Waters and Peterson feel like they have the right to decide who deserve life or death. Waters wanted to promote Peterson because of his defiant attitude.
    • Worse: Both Waters and Peterson feel like they have to right to decide who's really Black.
    • During an earlier scene, after the big baseball win, Waters disparages C.J. for his ignorant ways. Peterson does the same thing when C.J. offers him a good luck charm when Peterson and Waters are about to fist-fight.
  • Posthumous Character: Sgt. Waters is already dead by the movie's beginning. So is C.J.
  • Rashomon Plot: Told mostly as flashbacks, there's bound to be one or two Unreliable Narrator types And one of them's the killer. What starts off as an investigation into a Black sergeant's murder reveals the sordid event of C.J.'s suicide.
  • The Reveal: Sgt. Waters was killed by 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.
  • Society Marches On: The term "Geechee" is almost unknown now.
  • 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.
  • Tragic Villain: 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.
  • 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 never intended for C.J. to commit suicide.
  • Wham Line:
    Waters: They still... hate YOU!!!

    Wilkie: He despised C.J.!

    • "Besides, we've been short on .45 caliber ammo for what, six months? It's for MPs and special duty people only."


Example of: