A Soldier's Story

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A Soldier's Story
Soldiers story poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Norman Jewison
Produced by Norman Jewison
Written by Charles Fuller
Starring Howard E. Rollins, Jr.
Adolph Caesar
Music by Herbie Hancock
Cinematography Russell Boyd
Edited by Caroline Biggerstaff
Mark Warner
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • September 13, 1984 (1984-09-13)
Running time
101 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $21,821,347[1]

A Soldier's Story is a 1984 American drama film directed by Norman Jewison, based upon Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning Off Broadway production A Soldier's Play. A black officer is sent to investigate the murder of a black sergeant in Louisiana near the end of World War II. It is a story about racism and segregation in a black U.S Army regiment with white officers deep in the Jim Crow South, in a time and place where a black officer is unprecedented and bitterly resented by nearly everyone.

The film was first shown at the Toronto Film Festival. It won the New York Drama Critics Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Theater Club Award, and three Village Voice Obie Awards. It won the Golden Prize at the 14th Moscow International Film Festival.[2] It was also nominated for three Academy Awards: for Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Adolph Caesar), and Screenplay Adaptation (Fuller).


Conflicted, light-skinned Sergeant Waters (Adolph Caesar) ruthlessly heaps abuse upon his men. He calls them names, but he especially relishes torturing the jovial and highly talented C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley). Sergeant Waters especially cannot stand the light-hearted behavior from the fellow black men in the platoon.

When Waters is killed, there are plenty of suspects for Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.) to investigate. Some soldiers also believe that Sergeant Waters was killed by the Ku Klux Klan.

In the beginning, Davenport's investigation is difficult. Not only do white officers oppose him, but black soldiers deride him. And he receives dishonest answers from those he questions about the murder. Eventually, Davenport begins to put the pieces of his investigation together and discovers two white officers saw Waters drunk on a road shortly before he was discovered dead at that scene, shot with two 45 caliber bullets. Davenport questions the white officers who admit they confronted Waters after he insulted them, but deny they killed him. Captain Taylor thinks the officers are lying and Davenport should have them arrested. Davenport refuses after learning that the ammunition used to kill Waters was not issued to those officers. Davenport learns Waters despised C.J. because C.J. acted like the stereotypical blacks of the Old South. Waters sets up C.J. on a false charge and C.J. hangs himself in jail awaiting trial. Waters then has Sgt. Wilkie busted to private. Wilkie admits his part in a cover up to get revenge on Waters and Davenport has him arrested. Waters then learns Pvt. Smalls and Pvt. Peterson had guard duty the night Waters was killed. Both, coincidentally, have gone AWOL just after it is announced the platoon will be shipped out to fight the Nazis. Smalls is caught first and admits to Davenport that he was with Peterson when Peterson shot Waters. Peterson is caught and confesses. The film ends with the platoon marching in preparation for their deployment to the European Theater.


Art Evans plays Private Wilkie, a nervous man too acquiescent for his own good. David Alan Grier plays C.J.'s closest friend, bonded by their Mississippi roots. Denzel Washington, in one of his earliest motion picture roles, portrays the deeply embittered Pfc. Peterson.


Jewison and many of the cast members worked for scale or less under a tight budget with Columbia Pictures. "No one really wanted to make this movie... a black story, it was based on World War II, and those themes were not popular at the box office", according to Jewison. Warner Bros. turned it down, as did Universal's president, Ned Tanen, and UA and MGM followed suit. Columbia's Frank Price read the screenplay and was deeply interested, but the studio was hesitant about its commercial value, so Jewison offered to do the film for a $5 million budget and no salary. When the Directors Guild of America insisted he must have a fee, he agreed to take the lowest possible amount. The film ended up grossing $22.1 million.[3]

Howard E. Rollins, Jr. had just received an Oscar nomination for his role in Ragtime and was cast as the lead. Most of the cast came from Broadway careers, but only Adolph Caesar, Denzel Washington, and William Allen Young appeared in both the movie and the original off-Broadway play with the Negro Ensemble Company in the New York version.

A Soldier's Story was shot entirely in Arkansas. The "Tynin" exterior scenes were shot in three days in Clarendon. The baseball sequence was filmed in Little Rock at the historic Lamar Porter Field.[4]

Bill Clinton (then Governor of Arkansas) dropped by during the shooting. He became very enthused about the project and later helped by providing the Arkansas Army National Guard in full regalia for a grand scene, since Jewison could not afford to pay an army of extras. Production was completed with their help at Fort Chaffee United States Army Ready Reserve base at Fort Smith (where Elvis Presley entered the military and received his first haircut).

Musical score[edit]

Herbie Hancock delivered an interpretative impromptu score. Patti Labelle and Larry Riley, who plays guitar, wrote and performed their own songs. The blues played a large role in the film's music.

Unfortunately there was no known consideration given to the production of an official soundtrack due to the aforementioned budgetary restraints—this, despite the film's relative box office success.





  1. ^ "A Soldier's Story (1984)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved June 19, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b "14th Moscow International Film Festival (1985)". MIFF. Retrieved 2013-02-08. 
  3. ^ "A Soldier's Story - Box Office Data, DVD Sales, Movie News, Cast Information". The Numbers. Retrieved June 19, 2013. 
  4. ^ Gordon, William A. (1996). Shot on This Site. Citadel Press. p. 146. ISBN 0-8065-1647-X. 

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