Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: A Soldier’s Story (dir by Norman Jewison)


Set during World War II, 1984’s A Soldier’s Story opens with a murder.

On a rural road outside of a segregated army base in Louisiana, someone has gunned down Sergeant Vernon Walters (Adolph Caesar).  At the time, Walters was staggering back to the base after a night of heavy drinking.  Both the local authorities and Watlers’s fellow soldiers assume that the murder was the work of the Ku Klux Klan.  Captain Richard Davenport (Howard Rollins) isn’t so sure.

Captain Davenport is the officer who has been assigned to investigate the murder.  From the minute that he arrives at the base, the soldiers stare at him.  As Cpl. Ellis (Robert Townsend) explains it, the enlisted men are shocked because they’ve never seen a black officer before.  Some of the soldiers admire Davenport while other view him with suspicion, wondering what Davenport must have done or who he must have sold out to earn his commission.

Meanwhile, the other officers (who are all white) view Davenport with a combination of condescension and hostility.  Col. Nivens (Trey Wilson) only allows Davenport three days to wrap up his investigation and assigns the polite but skeptical Capt. Taylor (Dennis Lipscomb) to work with him.  Taylor suspects that Walters may have been murdered by the openly racist Lt. Byrd (Wings Hauser!).  Davenport, however, isn’t so sure.  Even though the official story is that Walters was a tough but fair sergeant who was respected by his company, Davenport suspects that one of them may have killed him.

Davenport and Taylor start to interview the soldiers who actually had to deal with Walters on a daily basis.  Through the use of flashbacks, Walters is revealed to be a far more complex man than anyone knew.  We see that Walters was a man who was bitterly aware of the fact that, even after a lifetime of military service, he was destined to always be treated as a second-class citizen by the nation that he served.  Unable to strike out at the men who the army and society had placed over him, Walters instead struck at the men serving underneath him.  While the man in Walters’s company wait for word on whether or not they’ll be allowed to serve overseas, Davenport tries to determine if one or more of them is a murderer.

A Soldier’s Story was adapted from a play but director Norman Jewison is careful to prevent the material from becoming stagey.  Effortlessly transitioning from the film’s present to flashbacks of the events that led to Walters’s murder, Jewison crafts both an incendiary look at race relations and a compelling murder mystery.  He’s helped by a strong cast of predominately African-American actors.  In one of his earliest roles, Denzel Washington plays Pfc. Peterson with a smoldering intensity.  David Alan Grier and Robert Townsend, two actors known for their comedic skills, impress in dramatic roles.  Seen primarily in flashbacks, Adolph Caesar turns Walters into a complex monster.

And yet, with all the talent on display, it is Howard Rollins who ultimately steals the movie.  As  a character, Captain Davenport has the potential to be a rather thankless role.  He spends most of the movie listening to other people talk and, because of his status as both an officer and a black man in the rural south, he’s rarely allowed to show much anger or, for that matter, any other emotion.  However, Rollins gives a performance of such quiet intelligence that Davenport becomes the most interesting character in the movie.  He’s the ultimate outsider.  Because of his higher rank and his role as an investigator, he can’t fraternize with the enlisted men but, as an African-American, he’s still expected to remain separate from and differential to his fellow officers.  As the only black officer on a segregated base, Davenport is assigned to stay in an empty barrack.  One of the best scenes in the film is Davenport standing alone and surveying the stark layout of his temporary quarters.  The expression on his face tells you everything you need to know.

(Towards the end of the film, when Davenport finally gets a chance to drop his rigid facade and, if just for one line, be himself, you want to cheer for him.)

A Soldier’s Story was nominated for best picture but it lost to another theatrical adaptation, Milos Forman’s Amadeus.

 

Lisa’s Homestate Reviews: Louisiana and Sister, Sister


Sister,_Sister

My sixth and (to date, anyway) final home state is Louisiana, where my family called Shreveport home from December of 1996 to May of 1998.  Louisiana was the last state I lived in before moving back to Texas, where I’ve remained ever since.

Whenever people find out that I used to live in Louisiana, they always seem to automatically assume that means that I either lived in New Orleans or next door to the family from Duck Dynasty.  They always seem to be somewhat disappointed to learn that I lived in Shreveport, which has a lot more in common with East Texas than with the things that most people visualize when they think about Louisiana.  However, I will always have good memories of Shreveport and let me tell you why.  For most of my childhood, I had a really bad stutter and, as a result, I was extremely shy.  However, shortly after my 12th birthday, my stutter went away.  Whether it was the result of spending hours with speech therapists or if it’s just something that I outgrew, Shreveport will always be the city where I stopped stuttering.  (And, it should be noted, Shreveport may not be New Orleans but it still celebrates Mardi Gras.  It’s just that the celebrations in Shreveport are a bit more …. sedate.)  So, seriously — don’t say a word against Shreveport.

Besides, Shreveport has a wonderful atmosphere all of its own.  In fact, the same thing can be said about all of Louisiana.  With its long history and unique culture, Louisiana is perhaps the most atmospheric state in the union and that atmosphere is perfectly displayed in Sister, Sister, an effective little thriller from 1987.

Sister, Sister tells the story of two sisters living in a dilapidated mansion on the bayous.  The older sister, Charlotte (Judith Ivey) is in love with Sheriff Cleve Doucet (Dennis Lipscomb) but she knows she can never marry him because she has to watch and protect her younger sister, Lucy (Jennifer Jason Leigh).  Lucy is mentally unstable and claims that she can communicate with the ghosts that live in the bayous.

Charlotte and Lucy have turned their mansion into the boarding house and they rent a room to Matt (Eric Stoltz), a congressional aide who is taking his vacation in the bayous.  Matt takes an interest in Lucy, which raises the suspicions of Etienne (Bejamin Mouton), a sinister handyman who appears to be obsessed with Lucy himself.  As you can probably guess, nobody in this film is quite who he or she appears to be and it all leads to the uncovering of dark secrets from the past.

So, let’s just start with the obvious.  The plot of Sister, Sister doesn’t make much sense.  If you think about it, you’ll find a lot of improbabilities.  So, my suggestion is that you just don’t think about it.  Instead, watch the film for the performances of Judith Ivey and Jennifer Jason and the atmosphere of the bayous.  Making his directorial debut here, future Twilight director Bill Condon captures a lot of haunting images of the bayou and his direction emphasizes mood over cheap thrills.  The end result is a horror film that might not be scary but it certainly is creepy and stays with you after it’s over.

If nothing else, Sister, Sister is an effective B-movie.  It’s also a nice showcase for my former home state of Louisiana.

Sister, Sister