A Soldier’s Story
How do black Americans assert their dignity and worth, in a nation based on human equality which, however, tolerated slavery for much of its history? Sports and entertainment were two means of blacks’ achieving recognition for their humanity. But performing duties to their country, even as it mocked their rights, is clearly the most efficacious. Since the willingness to fight and die for one’s country is perhaps the most serious of human activities, it is thus a far better way for blacks to persuade fellow Americans of their worth than, say, the ability to hit a baseball or to sing.
A Soldier’s Story takes place on a black army base, located in Louisiana in World War II. This is the segregated South and the segregated army. Who murdered a black sergeant, a World War I hero apparently admired by his men? A black captain appointed by the Government to investigate the case is adulated by blacks and gawked at or resented by white officers, neither of whom have ever seen a black officer. But all the captain seeks is recognition as a fair and efficient prosecutor. His search for the murderer becomes an inquiry into the painful course of human equality in America.
The captain discovers that the light-skinned sergeant was in fact despised by his men, and for good reason. His nobility in duty masked a twisted soul, which confused part of this excellence with complete excellence. The sergeant acts on asociological conception of equality: A man is what others of his own race and those who mock make to be.
The captain, on the other hand, wants to know the truth, and acts on a political conception of equality-recognition of his rank (i.e., his intrinsic merit) quite apart from his race. In contrast to the sergeant’s tyranny, which further degraded grandsons of slaves, the captain-lawyer exemplifies the rule of law, which presupposes the human equality that he wants to see respected. By upholding and spreading the trans-racial standard of the rule of law, the captain educates everyone of both races to see the truth of human equality.
It is perhaps unjust that the circumstance of the war was the means by which equality could be recognized. But the point is that the segregated black units affirm their loyalty to their country and march cheerfully off to war.
2010: The Year We Make Contact
The long-awaited sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey disappoints. Screenwriter-director Peter Hyams did not attempt to match the inventiveness of Kubrick. Instead, he lowers his sights and delivers a well-paced adventure centered around the mystery of the failed Discovery mission of the first film. What went wrong with the supercomputer HAL? What is the meaning of the black monolith? What happened to astronaut Dave Bowman? Unfortunately, by lowering his sights, Hyams delivers a film that is not merely simple-minded but wrongheaded in its conclusions. The year 2010 seems strangely like 1984: The superpowers are squared off against each other in Central America. But we know implicitly whose fault it is; we are told repeatedly that the United States has a “reactionary” president. (Wonder who?) Even the dramatic possibilities for explaining the role of HAL are sacrificed for a quick sideswipe of “national security” types in the White House.
The film ends with the still-unexplained intelligence behind the monolith telling the earth to live in peace and share the universe, which, amazingly, the film suggests immediately ensues. The planet Jupiter collapses and forms a new star, reminiscent of the star in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, which also announced “Peace on earth, good will toward men.” Of course, mankind has not heeded that now-ancient message; what makes Hyams think human nature will be transmuted by his gnostic version of the same message today?
Disregard the film’s overly discussed premise-that Antonio Salieri, court composer of Austria’s Joseph II, murdered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. That’s nonsense, but playwright Peter Shaffer and director Milos Forman have produced a treasure house of sensuous delights, within which dwells a great mystery: Does human happiness ultimately require divine blessing?
Salieri, a mediocre musician, comes to despise the childish, vulgar genius Mozart, whom he sees as God’s despicable choice to express Himself on earth. In contradistinction to the title of the film (“Lover of God”), Salieri turns himself into a hater of God, who will drive Mozart to an early (pauper’s) grave, and thus avenge his own failure, resentment, and misery. But Salieri will even botch his own suicide, and he dies in a madhouse, the “patron saint of mediocrity.”
If Salieri is certain of his own failure, a different question faces Mozart. Whom should he bow to-the crude audience for whom he wrote The Magic Flute or to the stilted, stunted royal taste? We moderns may feel more at home in Emanuel Schikaneder’s theater, but public recognition is fickle, and taste must ultimately be judged by higher standards than mere popularity or acceptance by authorities, then or now. (Doubtless whatever Salieri recordings exist have already found a new popularity.)
Similarly, human happiness, the film would seem to imply, requires more than earthly standards of recognition or, at any rate, ordinary earthly standards. Amadeus invites the thoughtful viewer who can see past the dazzle to raise the question of whether a divine blessing is necessary for a good life.