"The worst thing you can do, in this part of the country, is pay too much attention to the death of a negro under mysterious circumstances."
Description: Trey Wilson as Colonel Nivens offers his opinion to Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.) in the motion picture A Soldier’s Story (1984).
Captain Davenport is a tough, black Army attorney sent from Washington, DC to investigate the murder of Vernon Waters (Adolph Caesar), a black Master Sergeant who was shot to death in Tynen, Louisiana near Fort Neal, an Army base training "colored" troops during World War II.
Davenport is not your regular token black officer. He is lawyer looking for justice, and he doesn't care if he ruffles the feathers of the white people in the surrounding community or the black soldiers on the base to discover who killed a man in the service of his country.
As Davenport enters the base in his jeep, he passes a group of soldiers doing callisthenics who stop and stare as the jeep drives by. "Alright, soldiers, shouts their drill sergeant,"let's get back to those exercises! Haven't you seen a colored officer before?" A GI's replies,"No, sir! Have you?"
Reporting to Colonel Nivens, the base's commander officer, Davenport is instructed to "Remember, you're the first colored officer most of these men ever seen. The Army expects you to set an example for the colored troops...and be a credit to your race." But credit or no credit, Davenport only wants to find the truth. Problem is" he only has three days to find the killer.
As he questions soldiers on the base, Davenport learns more about Master Sergeant Waters. In one flashback, we hear the gruff, veteran soldier explains his experience while serving in Europe:
"You know the damage one ignorant Negro can do? We were in France in the first war; we'd won decorations. But the white boys had told all them French gals that we had tails. Then they found this ignorant colored soldier, paid him to tie a tail to his ass and run around half-naked, making monkey sounds. Put him on the big round table in the Cafe Napoleon, put a reed in his hand, crown on his head, blanket on his shoulders, and made him eat "bananas" in front of all them Frenchies. Oh, how the white boys danced that night... passed out leaflets with that boy's picture on it. Called him Moonshine, King of the Monkeys. And when we slit his throat, you know that fool asked us what he had done wrong?"
As he trains his soldiers, Sgt. Waters detests the way some of his race act the role of a stereotypical black which he calls "geeches," especially C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley) a talented blues guitarist and ace baseball player whose skin is darker than Waters -- a lighter-skinned, and better educated Negro.
"We're men. Soldiers. And I don't intend for our race to be cheated of its place of honor and respect in this war because of fools like C.J."
In another flashback scene, Waters suggests to C.J. Memphis that the Nazi's plan of eradicating the worst to purify the whole is not that bad of an idea.
"Them Nazis ain't all crazy. Whole lot of people just can't seem to fit in to where things seem to be going. Like you, CJ. See, the Black race can't afford you no more. There used to be a time, we'd see someone like you singin', clownin', yassuh-bossin'... and we wouldn't do anything. Folks liked that. You were good. Homey kind of nigger. When they needed somebody to mistreat, call a name or two, they paraded you. Reminded them of the good old days. Not no more. The day of the Geechee is gone, boy. And you're going with it."
To get to the bottom of the murder mystery, Davenport interviews members of Sergeant Waters’ platoon. They include: Corporal Ellis (Robert Townsend), who also serves as Davenport’s personal Jeep driver; Private Wilkie (Art Evans) once a Sergeant who was busted in rank by Waters); Corporal Cobb (David Alan Grier), Private Henson (William Allen Young); Private Smalls (David Harris), who knows more about the murder than he's telling; and Private Peterson (Denzel Washington) who fought Waters when he asks the verbally and physically abusive Sergeant, “What kind of colored officer are you?.” Peterson disliked Waters for targeting his friend and fellow Alabamian C.J. Memphis, who later committed suicide in the stockade after Sergeant Waters placed him there on trumped up charges.
Davenport also interviewed two white officers who admitted to beating Sergeant Waters on the night he had died. They did not kill him, but they did kill the notion that Waters was somehow on an equal level with the white officers. He suddenly realizes that despite all of his education and training and "yassir-bossin" to work his way up the ladder, "They still hate you."
In the end, we discover the identity of the killer. It is not a member of the Ku Klux Klan as the black soldiers suspected but rather Private Peterson. He shot Waters while on guard duty with Private Smalls when the sergeant returned to the base drunk, after visiting a local bar. Waters had taken to the booze after he faked a shooting and planted the gun under CJ’s bunk which resulted in his suicide while being held in the brig.
With the case solved, Davenport leaves for Washington while the black troops prepare to travel overseas to Europe. Ready for action, Corporal Ellis (Robert Townsend) says, “They’re finally going to give us Negroes a chance to fight. Hitler ain‘t got a chance now. And, after what Joe Louis did to Max Schmeling.” Fellow soldier Corporal Cobb (David Allen Grier) then declares, "Look out, Hitler! The niggers is coming to get your ass!"