Reflections on A Soldier's Story: For Blacks, A War Within the War
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 25, Numbers 1-2, 1995
- pp. 18-23
- Additional Information
Long I Reflections on A Soldier's Story: For Blacks, A War Within The War Clockwise from top left,Art Evans, David Allen Crier, David Harris, Dennis Lipscomb, WilliamAllen Young, Denzel Washington, RobertTownsend and Larry Riley, in Columbia Pictures'ASoldier'sStory. Directed by Norman Jewison from a screenplay byCharles Fuller,thefilm stars Howard E. Rollins,Jr. and Alolph Caesar. Jewison, Ronald L Schwary and Patrick Palmer produced. 18 I Film & History The Black Image in Film | Special In-Depth Section Jerome H. Long Wesleyan University Reflections on A Soldier's Story: For Blacks, A War Within the War F / ^^irector Norman Jewinson transformed Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama A Soldier's Play (1981) into a powerful and innovative film, A Soldier's Sto/y (1984). Ostensibly this film is not about war at all—if by war we mean armed combat with a well-defined adversary. The war ofA Soldier's StoryIs a different kind of war-one that has been fought by black soldiers throughout the history of the United States. There have been other movies depicting the role of Negro soldiers in World War II. The Red Ball Express (1952), Bataan (1943), Sahara (1943), Home of the Brave (1949) and the War Department's The Negro Soldier (1943, directed by Frank Capra) come to mind. All of these films-except The Negro Soldier- depict in combat scenes the bravery and camaraderie of Negro and white soldiers fighting side by side. The fact of the racial segregation of the U. S. Army during World War II is glossed over either by a plotthat accidentally throws Negro and white soldiers together (as in Bataan and Sahara) or by outright falsification (as the depiction of seemingly integrated units in The Red Ball Express). The portrayal of Negro soldiers is shallow and romanticized; the stories never delve into their feelings or inner conflicts, much less their attitudes toward a segregated army ostensibly fighting for the principles of democracy and freedom. In fact, segregation and prejudice are seldom mentioned. Ralph Ellison, in a 1981 introduction to Invisible Man,lawyer from the Judge Advocate General's Office in Washwrites that "most of this nation's conflicts ofarms for Afro-ington D.C, has been temporarily assigned to the Military Americans have been wars-within-wars"(x). First, there wasPolice. His mission is to investigate the murder of a Negro the war between each Negro soldier and the segregated mili-sergeant, Vernon C. Waters (Adolph Caesar), near the town tary. In addition, there was the war within each Negro sol-ofTynin, Louisiana—not far from Fort Neal. A preliminary dier as a result ofhis membership in a military thatviolatedreport concerning the murder has been filed and found unthe democratic ideals it fought to defend. It is this "war-satisfactory. Because of previous murders ofNegro soldiers within-the-war" that is the subject of A Soldier's Story.stationed at Fort Neal, there is a strong suspicion of Ku Klux On the surface A Soldier'sStoryis amurder mystery. InKlan involvementand ofa cover-up and conspiracy bywhite 1944 Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins,Jr.), a Negroofflcers· The case is «opened as a result ofpressure by the NAACP, the black press, and other black organizations. Vol. 25, No. 1-2, 1995 | 19 Long I Reflections on A Soldier's Story: For Blacks, A War Within The War In the process ofhis investigation, Captain Davenport conducts a series of interviews with Negro enlisted men. As Davenport interviews each man, the scene cuts to a flashback presenting a picture of the personality, character, and behavior ofSgt. Waters . With relentless patience and logic, Captain Davenport accomplishes his task. As the events leading up to the murder are reconstructed, the murderers are found out, and they confess. They are, surprisingly , two Negro soldiers, Pfc. Melvin Peterson (Denzel Washington) and Pvt. Tony Smalls (David Harris), members ofWaters' own platoon. So one interpretation of the film is that it is simply a detective story. But this is only a surface reading. Davenport wants to discover not only who murdered Sgt. Waters, but why. As the story of the soldiers' relationship to Sgt. Waters unfolds in flashbacks , it gradually becomes clear that the...