Friday, July 1, 2011

A Soldier's Story

A Soldier's Story
last seen online via YouTube

Have you ever had a relative embarrass you in public? Maybe it was at a party and they'd had way too much to drink. Or maybe they'd said something insensitive in front of your new boy- or girlfriend, whom they were meeting for the first time. Something along those lines. Maybe this sort of thing is par for the course with this particular person. Maybe they always embarrass you somehow no matter how hard they try not to. They're family. It may not be that easy to write them out of your life, and maybe, when all is said and done, you don't really want to - but how many times can you forgive them before it gets to be too much?

There's a Chris Rock stand-up routine where he says a line that has stuck in my mind from the first time I heard it: "I love black people! But I can't stand niggers." He makes a distinction between ordinary, respectable blacks and those who embody the worst stereotypes, and while this may sound elitist on the face of it, I have to say, I know exactly what he means, because I see that distinction all the time. 

I see some black folks - mostly young people, but not always - acting up in public like they haven't got any sense. I see stories like this, or this, praying that the guilty parties aren't black people, knowing they are all the same, and it's friggin' embarrassing. And while I realize that non-blacks are every bit as capable of idiotic and irresponsible behavior, we're the ones who have been treated as second-class human beings in this country for centuries through no fault of our own, and now that we've fought, and continue to fight, for the right to be recognized as equals, some of us still would rather play the fool.

And that, in a nutshell, is the conflict at the heart of the movie A Soldier's Story, a murder mystery set on a black army base during World War 2. The murder victim is a drill sergeant whose brusk manner towards his men in general and one in particular, a young backwoods country dude, hides a deep loathing and contempt for those who, in his eyes, "embarrass" the race by their actions. The investigating officer is another black man, one who is hamstrung by the white bureaucracy that hinders him from doing his job.

My father took me to see this as a child, perhaps hoping I'd learn a thing or two. Of course, I understand it much more now than I did then, but still, the memory of seeing this movie with him lingers in my mind. It's absolutely the kind of movie he loved, so it's kind of special to me in a way.

I think it's significant to also point out another, tangential aspect of this notion of "black people versus niggers," so to speak, as presented in the movie. Adolph Caesar, the superb actor who plays the murdered sergeant, is light-skinned. The young country bumpkin soldier his character harasses is dark-skinned. While it's never directly addressed in the movie, this reflects a prejudice of a certain kind within the black community, one that we don't like to discuss, but it exists all the same. 

The belief that light-skinned blacks have it easier in life than dark-skinned ones goes all the way back to slavery times, when the former would be the ones with the relatively cushy jobs working inside the mansion and the latter would work the fields in the hot sun. A great deal of resentment built up as a result of this arrangement, on both sides, and it has never really went away, and by casting these roles this way, it adds an extra level of subtext to the story. (The fascinating book The Color Complex deals with this phenomenon in great detail.)

I kinda wish I could've watched this with my father one more time. I like to think he and I would've had a good discussion about it.

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