A Soldier’s Story: A Review

It’s been a while since I did a movie review. But I’ve been reminded recently of a very excellent movie that touches on baseball and the black experience in America. It’s called A Soldier’s Story and it makes for excellent, if chilling, viewing.

The movie is an adaption of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize winning play and tells the story of a black army unit in 1944 Louisiana. The unit is a baseball team masquerading as a chemical company. The team manager and top sergeant, Vernon Waters (Adolph Caesar), is found dead on the road to the base and a black captain (Howard Rollins) is sent from Washington to find out what happened to him. During the flick we meet the company, which includes the shortstop (Denzel Washington), the clubhouse man ( Art Evans), and outfielder David Allen Grier, among others. We find out about how the team played, how the unit reacted to the sergeant. But we don’t meet the center fielder, C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley) We also find out that Sergeant Waters was an absolutely awful human being. A black man, he was horrified at the position black people held in society and was determined to change it. His solution may have been worse than the problem. He decided to rid the world of what he called “low-class geechees,” black men, generally from the South, who fit into white stereotypes of  lazy, shiftless, “sittin’ around the shack”, blacks who gave the race a bad name. By getting rid of those black people who he considered were holding back the black race he could insure that blacks would do better and move up in society. He was, in a strange sort of way, as bigoted as the white officers in the unit. And for Waters, the worst offender of all was C.J. Memphis, southerner, cotton picker, blues singer, “yassir, bossin”, C.J. Memphis. What happens to Memphis and the team is the centerpiece of the story and finding out who killed Waters becomes secondary to finding out what kind of man he was.

Larry Riley as C.J.

Howard Rollins does a good job as the captain, Denzel Washington shows you what’s coming in his later career with a fine performance, and Art Evans is good as Waters’ flunky. Larry Riley does a wonderful job as C.J., but this is Adolph Caesar’s movie. He dominates every scene he’s in. He hovers over the other scenes like a phantom. He is evil. He is vicious. He is one of the truly great villains of moviedom. It’s worth renting the movie just to watch him perform.

Adolph Caesar as Waters

The movie also contains some good music, much of it provided by Riley, but Patti LaBelle’s turn as “Big Mary” is great just to listen to her sing. If I had to pick one scene to tell you to watch for, it’s a scene in a bar between Caesar and Evans in which Sergeant Waters tells Evans what happened to him in France. Caesar is absolutely chilling. The role gained him an Academy Award nomination. The movie was also nominated for best picture. Neither won, and within a few years Caesar was dead from a heart attack.

It’s not an easy movie to enjoy, but it’s worth the time.  Don’t miss Caesar’s performance as a truly great villain. The movie was filmed in Arkansas and lasts a little over two hours.

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One Response to “A Soldier’s Story: A Review”

  1. William Miller Says:

    I remember seeing this film many years ago in a theater. You’re right, it’s a fine film. Adolph Casear’s performance is captivating. Howard Rollins appeared to be a rising star at the time, too. But, sadly, his career was derailed by drug addiction. He passed away (from lymphona) in ’96.
    This is a truly underrated movie. Thanks for helping me remember it.
    Bill

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