60 user 29 critic

A Soldier's Story (1984)

1:23 | Trailer
An African-American officer investigates a murder in a racially charged situation in World War II.


Norman Jewison


Charles Fuller (screenplay), Charles Fuller (play)
Nominated for 3 Oscars. Another 6 wins & 6 nominations. See more awards »





Cast overview, first billed only:
Howard E. Rollins Jr. ... Captain Davenport
Adolph Caesar ... Sergeant Waters
Art Evans ... Private Wilkie
David Alan Grier ... Corporal Cobb
David Harris ... Private Smalls
Dennis Lipscomb ... Captain Taylor
Larry Riley ... C.J. Memphis
Robert Townsend ... Corporal Ellis
Denzel Washington ... Private First Class Peterson
William Allen Young ... Private Henson
Patti LaBelle ... Big Mary
Wings Hauser ... Lieutenant Byrd
Scott Paulin ... Captain Wilcox
John Hancock ... Sergeant Washington
Trey Wilson ... Colonel Nivens


A black soldier is killed while returning to his base in the deep south. The white people of the area are suspected at first. A tough black army attorney is brought in to find out the truth. We find out a bit more about the dead soldier in flashbacks - and that he was unpopular. Will the attorney find the killer ? Written by Colin Tinto <cst@imdb.com>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


Alone, far from home, and far from justice, he has three days to learn the truth about a murder...and the truth is a story you won't forget.


Crime | Drama | Mystery | War


PG | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

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Did You Know?


Several scenes were written specifically for the movie, and did not appear in Fuller's "A Soldier's Play" theater production. See more »


When C.J. hits his home run, it has the look of a walk off, game-winning home run, and all the other ballplayers gather around home plate to congratulate him, the White fans start to leave the stands and the Black fans celebrate. However, the Black players' dugout has a "Visitors" sign hanging from it, so the game wouldn't be over after a home run from the visiting team. See more »


[Last lines]
Captain Taylor: I guess I'll have to get used to Negroes with bars on their shoulders, Davenport. You know, being in charge.
Captain Davenport: Oh, you'll get used to it, Captain. You bet your ass on that. You'll get used to it.
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Alternate Versions

CBS edited 5 minutes from this film for its 1987 network television premiere. See more »


Featured in The Movies: The Eighties (2019) See more »


Bright Red Zoot Suit
Written and Performed by Larry Riley
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User Reviews

A Soldier's Story -- A Compelling One Indeed
9 March 2012 | by Sparky48See all my reviews

Who murdered Sgt. Waters? This is the mystery posed at the outset of "A Soldier's Story," as we see Waters-speaking incoherently and obviously intoxicated-being shot to death on a country road. The setting is Tynin, Louisiana, and the year is 1944, near the end of WWII. Tynin, like the rest of the Deep South, is a town plagued by racial segregation and Klan terrorism. That said, everyone on the Tynin army base, both black and white, has no doubt that the black sergeant's killing was at the hands of white racists, some are even certain that it was the work of the KKK.

Enter Capt. Davenport, a Negro army officer/lawyer assigned by Washington to investigate Waters' killing. No stranger to racial hostility himself, he perceives himself as a crusader, out to see that justice-ultimately racial justice--is served for the murder. However, he has the unfortunate experience of learning that internal black racism can be just as hostile and damaging as the external racism historically afflicted by white society.

Howard Rollins plays Capt. Davenport, the no nonsense, stoic black army officer investigating Waters' murder, and Dennis Lipscomb plays Captain Taylor, the late Waters' white commanding officer, who, like Davenport, desperately wants Waters' killers prosecuted. However, Taylor earnestly tries to persuade Davenport to relinquish the investigation, believing that as a black man, there's no way that Davenport can possibly "get at the truth" behind the killing.

But it is Adolph Caesar who commands most of your attention throughout this movie in the role of the sadistic Sgt. Vernon Waters. The mystery of Sgt. Waters' murder is the focal point of "A Soldier's Story," and, fittingly, Caesar is "the man" of this movie. Through a series of film flashbacks of Waters, via Davenport's interviews with black soldiers of Waters' platoon and Captain Taylor, we learn that Waters was an intensely embittered, disillusioned black master sergeant who believed that Southern blacks, perpetuating stereotypes of minstrelsy and ignorance, impede the black race from attaining acceptance and respect from white society. That said, he embarks on his own personal crusade to rid the black race of such dregs so that the race can prosper and progress.

With his raspy, deep voice, Caesar spent most of his career doing narrations for Hollywood productions. (While hearing him deliver his lines in this movie, and if you're over 45, you can't help but to reminisce about the classic tag line he delivered in TV commercials for the United Negro College Fund way back in the day-"A mind is a terrible thing to waste.") But it is in this role as Sgt. Waters in "A Soldier's Story" that Caesar displays his powerful talent as a dramatic actor, in a role that would eventually become his signature. It is with his penetrating voice that he effectively embodies the hatred and bitterness that personifies the Waters' character. Although small in stature, his screen presence is commanding, and at times even chilling, particularly when he vents his animosity and sadism toward the Southern Negroes of his platoon, whom he deprecatingly refers to as "geeches." It is a hatred so intense that as Pvt. Wilke (Water's subordinate) explains to Davenport, "You could just feel it." Caesar would go on to win a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for "Best Supporting Actor" for his portrayal of Sgt. Waters in "A Soldier's Story," a performance that would make him a star overnight. Unfortunately, he would suffer an untimely death two years after the movie was released, just as he was coming into his own as a Hollywood celebrity.

In what was only his second appearance in a Hollywood movie, Denzel Washington delivers a solid performance as "Pvt. Peterson," the outspoken and assertive soldier from Alabama, totally unafraid to challenge Waters' bigotry toward the Southern black soldiers. In stark contrast to Peterson, veteran actor Art Evans plays Pvt. Wilkie, Waters' docile and acquiescent flunky, who, in an effort to regain his rank of sergeant, a rank Waters had stripped, is more than willing to facilitate the sergeant's dastardly deeds.

In one of the movie's most memorable performances, Larry Riley plays "C.J. Memphis," a Mississippi farmhand turned soldier who becomes the most unfortunate and tragic victim of Water's malevolence. Although engaging and exceptionally talented, both musically and athletically, Memphis is obviously the most illiterate and "uncultured" soldier of Waters' platoon, and a rube too naïve to realize that of all of the Southern soldiers, he's the "geeche" that Waters despises most.

In addition to the movie's intriguing drama and suspense, "A Soldier's Story" features prime musical entertainment. Iconic R&B vocalist Patti LaBelle plays "Big Mary," owner of a bar where the black soldiers from the army base frequent. Her mesmerizing blues/gospel singing, coupled with Riley's own fine Mississippi Delta blues singing and guitar playing, makes for some of the movie's most entertaining moments.

Charles Fuller, the playwright of "A Soldier's Story" and screenwriter for this movie, did quite a fine job of transitioning his Pulitzer-Prize winning play to the big screen, and the added dimensions of cinema greatly enhances his story. However, even though the story is intended to be a "whodunit," you'll most likely gather who murdered Waters before it is revealed at the end of the movie.

Nevertheless, "A Soldier's Story" is a truly compelling tale, and the magnificent performances delivered by the cast alone, a cast that would be perceived by many today as "all-star," will have you wanting to watch this movie over and over again.

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Frequently Asked Questions

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Release Date:

2 November 1984 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

A Soldier's Story See more »

Filming Locations:

Arkansas, USA See more »


Box Office


$6,000,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend USA:

$156,383, 16 September 1984

Gross USA:


Cumulative Worldwide Gross:

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Company Credits

Production Co:

Columbia Pictures, Caldix See more »
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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Dolby Stereo



Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
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