At 30 ‘A Soldier’s Story’ still a premier American film

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In an era of movies about Madea’s antics, Slavery retakes and revisits—now’s a great time to flashback some 30 years ago, when a film simply titled “A Soldier’s Story” rocked the film world in a positive light, effectively blending dramatic fiction with historical authenticity.

As we enter 2014, it’s also relevant to reflect on the 30-year anniversary of the Norman Jewison-produced flick that introduced Holllywood to a largely African-American male cast of characters who, at the time, were mostly unknown—outside of Off-Broadway theater houses and LA’s live theater scene.

More than any film this side of 1961’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” “A Soldier’s Story” gets the Gold Star Award in terms of introducing the film world to a cast of Black actors and performers who to this day—remain relevant in Hollywood.

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“A Soldier’s Story” introduced us to such heavyweight silver screen superstars and notables such as the late Howard E. Rollins Jr., Denzel Washington, Art Evans, Robert Townsend, David Alan Grier, William Allen Young, David Harris, Wings Hauser, Dennis Lipscomb, in addition to Adolph Caesar, Larry Riley,

John Hancock and Trey Wilson—the latter four who are now deceased.

Other notables who appeared in the 1984 film were Grammy Award vocal legend Patti LaBelle, who made her acting debut as bar owner, “Big Mary.”

LaBelle and Riley sang a duet in the movie—although the film’s limited budget also called for limitations on producing a filmscore, in addition to prohibited use of pre-recorded music owned by music licensing agencies like BMI or ASCAP, according to published reports.

Jazz legend Herbie Hancock also contributed to the music score.

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The original play, then titled “A Soldier’s Play,” was written by Philadelphia playwright, Charles Fuller.

The live production was so renowned Off Broadway it soon captured the attention of Canadian-born director Jewison, who saw the real potential of producing a legitimate screenplay for moviegoers. Fuller’s original play was produced by the legendary NYC-based Negro Ensemble Company.

The movie’s timeline was staged near the end of World War II, when a Black officer (Rollins) was ordered to investigate the murder of a Black sergeant (Caesar) at a segregated Louisiana Army base, circa 1945.  Though on the surface, it appeared the victim may have been the target of a racist hate crime—Rollins ultimately charged and convicted Washington’s character of murder.

Though it took just $5 million to produce the film, the movie would gross some $21 million.

Still, director Jewison had a difficult time finding movie houses to finance and produce the film work.

The movie was filmed at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas. Then-Governor Bill Clinton provided the Arkansas National Guard in full parade regalia, at no cost for visual enhancement, according to published reports.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Caesar) and Screenplay Adaptation (Fuller).

It also won the New York Drama Critics Award, NAACP Image Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, the Theater Club Award and three Village Voice Obie awards.

It also won the Golden Prize at the 14th Moscow International Film Festival.
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