For anyone who enjoys pensive military-focused films and tight, impactful screenwriting, A Soldier’s Story (1984) remains a classic gem worth appreciating and returning to. It’s also known as Denzel Washington’s first feature film, cementing its legacy in film history.
The film details the murder of a black soldier known as Vernon Waters, who had been stationed in Louisiana during WW2. Staggering his way home from a night of heavy drinking, Waters, who is black, is disparaged by those around him. As his assailant attacks him, he gives words of defiance, stating “they still hate you!” before ultimately being shot.
As the situation is relayed to military high command, an army investigator is sent, played by Howard E. Rollins Jr. His task is to navigate the prejudices of the Louisana military setting and to find justice for Waters, a task easier said than done, and path he is continually warned against pursuing. Nevertheless, he attempts to put together the puzzle pieces to figure out what happened that night, and who is to blame.
Is A Soldier’s Story (1987) real, and if so, who is it inspired by?
A Soldier’s Story is a fictional script but hits on some hard home truths about discrimination in the military during WW2 times. During WW2, the US military was still segregated, and as such all-black units were commonplace. They were often relegated to laborious tasks as a matter of course and were limited from pursuing focused career advancement.
Well-known examples of discrimination include the Tuskegee Airmen, a crack fighter squadron that overcame social adversity (to put things mildly) in pursuit of their essential contributions to WW2. In the South, black soldiers were routinely subject to Jim Crow Laws meaning they had lesser rights than white soldiers.
The film, adapted from a Charles Fuller play that went onto win the Pulitzer Prize, uses these stories for inspiration when detailing the hardships faced, even when investigating a situation as serious as homicide within the ranks.
What is there to take away from A Soldier’s Story?
Despite all of the above, the film isn’t a two-hour story about how hard the fictional Waters had it during his time. We see that he was a hard driver of the troops under him, despised by most, and as such many on the base had a reason to wish him harm. As we see, the tangled web of discrimination and prejudice left some on the base attempting to cover up a murder that they had no involvement in, simply because of the race of the victim.
The final conclusion, which we won’t spoil here, shows the nuanced and fragile nature of racism and prejudice within the armed forces of the time, and how the contributing factors and outcomes aren’t always as clear-cut as we think. It’s a mature film with a stellar cast and one that isn’t afraid to expose harmful social attitudes, while also giving space for why those mistaken and misguided perspectives develop in the first place.