Yesterday I finally watched Norman Jewison's film A Soldier's Story (1984), which is based on Charles Fuller's play A Soldier's Play. This is a really interesting film for many reasons. First off, I had forgotten all about Howard E. Rollins, Jr. He is the lead in this film and the guy on the poster.
Recognize him? He got an Oscar nomination for his role in Miloš Forman's Ragtime as Coalhouse Walker. He also played Virgil Tibbs in the long-running television series "In the Heat of the Night." That show was on when I was a kid and I don't really remember it, but evidently Rollins got kicked off the show after a couple of DUI incidents and other various disorderly conduct that got him in trouble with the law. As I was watching A Soldier's Story I kept wondering why I never see Rollins in films anymore. He was the iconic black actor of the early 1980s, starring as Medgar Evars in For Us, the Living on tv and in dozens of other tv movies, a presence on daytime soap "All My Children" and the star of two films nominated for Best Picture. Rollins obviously had many personal problems and his trouble with the law was a manifestation of that. He died in 1996 at the age of 46 (!) of complications from AIDS. I can't find anything out about his sexuality on the web, but that shouldn't come as a surprise.
A Soldier's Story was nominated for Best Picture, and it deserves its nomination. It's a total genre picture: military mystery film, but it's superbly directed by Norman Jewison. (Think In the Valley of Elah without the boredom.) It also boasts a great cast with some wonderful performances. Rollins wasn't nominated for an Oscar for this performance, but the mystery's dead man (Adolph Caesar) was. He's a scary, hateful old man, and it's an intriguing role. David Alan Grier, David Harris, William Allen Young and Denzel Washington (in one of his first films) are also in the cast. And Patti LaBelle stars as the owner of the local juke joint. And she sings. Twice! The music is by Herbie Hancock. My favorite performance is by Robert Townsend, who plays Rollins's driver throughout the movie. His excitement when he realizes the captain they sent down to investigate the murder is a black man is palpable and a lovely thing to watch. Townsend was the dad on the tv show "The Parent 'Hood" in the late 1990s. He's fantastic in this movie.
The film itself is a lot like Jewison's earlier In the Heat of the Night (1967) with Sidney Poitier and can't really escape comparison, but A Soldier's Story is further advanced than that movie, coming twenty years later. A Soldier's Story is about being black and how best to be black in the Army. The characters debate real issues of racism within the black community and systems of power that help some black people while keeping others down. It's fascinating and nuanced and makes for compelling drama. Recommended.