A soldier’s story: battling bias in the backyard

Black writer Charles H. Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play won a Pulitzer Prize for exploring simmering animosity among blacks, especially how some absorb rather than shun the prejudice that they accuse many whites of. It inspired Norman Jewison’s searing film A Soldier’s Story (1984), which secured three Oscar nominations, including one for Fuller’s screenplay. 

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the film, a eulogy of its own to Jewison, who died on January 20, 2024, after half a century of filmmaking. But Roger Ebert, reviewing it the year it was released, wrote that it’s “one of those movies that’s about less than you might think… trapped by its mechanical plot… what the movie has to say is… pale and limited.”


During World War II, in “Tynin, Louisiana 1944”, a company of black soldiers at a segregated Army base become embroiled in the mysterious killing of a black non-commissioned officer, Sgt. Vernon Waters (Adolph Caesar).

White base chiefs aren’t used to seeing black officers. So, when a black, Capt. Richard Davenport (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) comes to investigate, they drag their feet. Like nearly everyone else at base, they wonder: if the Klan holds sway in town anyway, what’s to investigate in the death of a black? With predetermined clarity, they warn Davenport: why spotlight such killings in these parts? What if vengeful black soldiers strike back at the Klan, triggering an “explosion” in town? 

To contain whatever outcomes they fear, base chiefs set Davenport an impossible deadline to investigate and report: three days! His hurried but thorough questioning throws up contrasting confessions from the men. Some wonder why anyone would kill a strict but “nice guy” like Waters. Others ask why he wasn’t killed sooner for his contemptible treatment of fellow blacks. That Waters had confrontations with black soldiers, Peterson (Denzel Washington) and C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley), and separately with white officers, Lt. Byrd, and Capt. Wilcox, muddies things for Davenport. 

Smarting under initial obstruction from white superiors and spurred by pride among black subordinates — he’s the first black officer on base — Davenport veers toward his own predetermined clarity: if the Klan didn’t do it, those two white officers spoiling for a fight probably did. But the turn of events gives Davenport pause: Is he as quick to misjudge whites as whites are to misjudge blacks? Maybe prejudging isn’t a white preserve, after all.

Invisible, but no less insidious, forms of racism

To Fuller, racism isn’t as black-and-white as his characters like to believe. Blacks and whites display iciness toward each other in the film, but some of it thaws as Jewison’s storytelling unfolds. Davenport softens when he finds white superiors allowing him to not only question two white officers under their command, but also raring to charge both when offered mere hints of their guilt.

Davenport’s jet-black shades seem to mirror an inner itch to shut out any bias, not just Tynin’s prying sunlight; he’s doubly anxious not to be seen as favouring his tribe. Peterson, too, wears his spectacles like a badge, as if it enables him to spot bias better than fellow blacks. Both succeed. And fail. But the timing and manner of their success and their failure makes for a riveting, enlightening watch.

Just before it was released, Jewison’s film was hit with a PG-R rating, which, at the time, meant it was deemed “detrimental to children.” It changed to a fairer PG later, but Jewison lamented that oddity,

“I made it for young people. 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.”

Ebert was wrong.

Jewison’s film is about more than we might think. What it’s saying is far from “pale and limited”, and it’s speaking to a little beyond Louisiana. Our dignity as humans unites us (black or white). Only some see that and are the better for it; others don't and are the worse for it. His film depicts a central tenet of human dignity: the undeniably human capacity for change. In the racial sweepstakes, some (even whites) show humility, openness, and courage to introspect and change, while others (even blacks) don't.


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Forty years since Jewison’s film, and in its introspective spirit, global audiences might find that the West isn’t alone in this sort of othering. It isn’t blacks alone who sneer at whites. Eastern-origin non-whites too sneer at whites, instead of interrogating their home-grown biases, even more sophisticated than racism. 

Why more sophisticated? 

Blacks need to be seen to be victimised; that sectarianism starts (and ends) with the skin. But Eastern origin casteism doesn’t need the crutch of colour. It imposes discrimination by descent with all of racism’s destructive power. It sprays multitudes with a stain and a stench that their clothes (or a cosmetologist’s bleach) can’t hide. Their birth names, their deities, their diets, their dialects, their region or class-imposed customs condemn them, long before they’re seen

If anything, centuries-old Eastern-origin, colour-blind casteism has infected the West, even while the East remains seemingly and relatively immune to the West’s more endemic, coloured racism.

In China, casteism is disguised as social class bigotry, dividing the country intotwo separate nations”, and threatening to “devour China from within.

In Nepal, casteism cunningly thrives long after religious boundaries have been transcended.

In India, totalitarianism is disguised — and too often mistaken — as religious. Sure, the stated enemies of a painfully obvious religious majoritarianism are minority religions. But here’s the thing. Minority religious groups are too minuscule to represent threats (real or imagined) to the religious majority. Besides, oppressed religious minorities have never hogged elite corridors anyway.

No. The real, unstated enemies of an increasingly swaggering upper-caste minority are the majority, the lower castes! These masses, regardless of religion, are the ones who seem threatening because of their sheer numbers. It is they, the lower castes, who must be bent, if not beaten, into submission as part of this sweeping othering. Religious bigotry, a smokescreen for the main event: upper caste hegemony. 

The East’s casteisms are as much a product of self-loathing and fear as the West’s racisms. It is this universal, very human fear that Jewison spotlights. It’s what makes his storytelling so compelling. The bigoted Waters breathes contempt, for whites, for blacks, but most of all for himself.

Irony of ironies. Like religious nationalists or casteist totalitarians in far-off Asia, Waters thinks he’s a defender of his race in America, cleansing it of its undesirables, keeping it pure, taking it back to its glorious roots, restoring its historical nobility by ridding it of those who, in his eyes, don’t do his race credit enough. Waters says, more to himself than anyone else, “I don’t intend for our race to be cheated out of its place of honour and respect.”

Waters explains to Private C.J. Memphis, as if to a child, precisely why he’s victimising him,

“The first war changed nothing for Negroes, but this one gonna change everything. Them Nazis ain’t all crazy; a whole lot of people don’t seem to fit in where things seem to be going. Like you, C. J. See, the Black race can’t afford you anymore. Oh, there used to be a time, we’d see somebody as you singin’, clownin’… and we wouldn’t do anything. Folks like that. You were good. Homey kind’ a Negro. When they needed somebody to mistreat, call a name or two, they paraded you. Reminded them good ole’ days. Not no more. The day to gotcha is goin’, boy. And ya goin’ with it.” 

Fear drives Waters’s every move; fear of being shown up as slower, weaker, smaller, stupider, more cowardly than someone, anyone. In one chilling scene, he rationalises his contempt of fellow blacks to another black, Private Wilkie. First, Waters faces Jewison’s camera. As he talks, he turns his back to it, but the camera persists, sliding sideways to hold his stare. Waters is now facing a mirror, and it’s his reflection that gazes back at the camera. Finally, he turns to face the camera again. This time, Jewison’s camera homes in on Wilkie’s quiet, haunted eyes.

That’s about as introspective as it can get on screen. And it should do. 

Far from scorning Jewison’s film, we should be grateful.

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on culture and society.


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