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Norman Jewison's long career as a filmmaker has touched on all types of stories, but he seems to really hit his targets when dealing with racial injustice. In the Heat of the Night (1967) was a groundbreaking piece of work in its time, and The Hurricane (1999) was another award-winning exploration of institutionalized racism. But A Soldier's Story (1984), Jewison's adaptation of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is often just as powerful as those better-known pictures, and it features a spectacular cast.
Jewison's film focuses on an investigation by Capt. Davenport (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.), an African-American officer who's been sent to Ft. Neal, Louisiana to uncover the truth about the murder of Sgt. Waters (Adolph Caesar), a cruel black drill instructor. Ft. Neal, however, is staffed by racist white officers who don't believe Davenport deserves his position in the military, and are dismayed by his insistence on determining who murdered a mere African-American soldier. Although many people think the investigation should be dropped, Davenport insists on talking to the soldiers and finding out as much as he can about their strained relationships with Waters. This all leads to a highly unexpected conclusion.
Production on A Soldier's Story began on Sept. 10, 1983. While filming at Ft. Chaffee in Barling, Arkansas, Jewison found that he had an ally in high places - none other than Bill Clinton, the state's charismatic young Governor. Clinton actually visited the set of A Soldier's Story while Jewison was shooting the sequence depicting a baseball game between black soldiers and their white counterparts. According to Jewison, the future President was very taken with the details of filming a motion picture, and even rode on a camera crane while it was explained to him how a wide-angle lens could be used to capture the entire baseball diamond in a single shot. Later during filming, Clinton literally called out the National Guard when Jewison discovered he couldn't find enough African-American extras who were willing to cut their hair and appear in the movie as soldiers. Arkansas' Guard members, of course, already had military haircuts, and were more than adept at marching in formation.
Jewison has always been considered a great director of actors, so it's not surprising that A Soldier's Story is driven by strong performances. Adolph Caesar had been appearing in second-rate movies and TV soap operas since the late 1960's, but, despite his gifts, had never really made it to the big-time. His persistence finally paid off when he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® nomination for his work in A Soldier's Story, which led to a supporting role in Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1985). Tragically, there was little time for Caesar to enjoy his long overdue success. He would die from a massive heart attack in 1986.
As memorable as Caesar's performance is, it was a young firebrand named Denzel Washington who made the biggest impression on Jewison during filming. "The camera loved (Washington)," Jewison later wrote in his autobiography, This Terrible Business Has Been Good To Me. "He was intelligent, rebellious, totally confident, and spectacularly talented. He was so confident he often thought he knew more than the director, but he watched and learned. He never believed the film was going to work until after he saw it finished. He didn't stop being above it all until he saw the film with an audience and realized it worked."
Shortly before A Soldier's Story was released, Jewison found himself fighting a battle that he never anticipated - the Classification and Ratings Board slapped the film with a PG-R rating, which, in its official definition, suggested that the picture could be "detrimental to children" (the rating was eventually changed to a straight PG).
"Strange looking back on it now, that anyone could find the film detrimental to young people," Jewison wrote. "I made it for young people. I wanted them to know how heroic their forefathers were. How their fathers and grandfathers had fought for a country that wouldn't acknowledge them as equals with the white men who fought alongside them. How you could give your life in defense of your country but couldn't be led into battle by a black officer...I wanted my children and their white friends to see it and understand more about racism and its insidious spread over the centuries and into our lives."
Director: Norman Jewison
Producer: Norman Jewison, Ronald L. Schwary, Patrick Palmer
Screenplay: Charles Fuller (based on his play, A Soldier's Play)
Cinematography: Russell Boyd
Editing: Mark Warner, Caroline Biggerstaff
Music: Herbie Hancock
Production Design: Walter Scott Herndon
Set Design: Thomas L. Roysden
Costume Design: Chuck Velasco, Robert Stewart
Cast: Howard E. Rollins, Jr. (Capt. Davenport), Adolph Caesar (Sgt. Waters), Art Evans (Pvt. Wilkie), David Alan Grier (Cpl. Cobb), David Harris (Pvt. Smalls), Dennis Lipscomb (Capt. Taylor), Larry Riley (C.J. Memphis), Robert Townsend (Cpl. Ellis), Denzel Washington (Pfc. Peterson), William Allen Young (Pvt. Henson), Patti LaBelle (Big Mary), Wings Hauser (Lt. Byrd), Scott Paulin (Capt. Wilcox), John Hancock (Sgt. Washington).
C-101m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara