Named for the all-black Twenty-Fourth United States Infantry Regiment, Kevin Willmott’s “The 24th” tells the story of the Houston riot of 1917. On the night of August 23rd members of the 24th, driven by relentless Jim Crow era racism, police harassment, and a bit of misinformation, took arms and marched into Houston. By the end of the night eleven civilians, five policemen, and four soldiers including a Captain in the National Guard had been killed as a result of their mutiny.
Willmott co-writes the story with the film’s star Trai Byers. Their setting is a compelling one. In the summer of 1917 World War I was brewing in Europe while at home black communities were being violently targeted by angry white mobs in several US cities. It was during this tense and racially-charged time that the 24th Infantry Division were sent to guard the construction of Camp Logan, three miles outside of the city of Houston. The camp was to train white soldiers before they were deployed to France. The 24th went there with similar aspirations of serving their country but ran head-first into hate and persecution.
Much of the movie’s uneven first half plays like a series of racially volatile encounters. Several of them are effective on their own and they do a good job conveying the ugliness of the setting. But there isn’t much connecting one scene to another. The biggest casualty in the earlier scenes is the character building. It takes a while before any of the 24th actually develop individually. When some of the players finally do, the story gets a much-needed boost.
Byars gets the meatiest role playing William Boston, a highly educated and idealistic young soldier hungry to join the war effort. He instantly clashes with his cynical first sergeant (Mykelti Williamson) who is quick to judge Boston’s buoyancy as a sign of weakness. At the same time he and other members of the 24th routinely encounter prejudice from the camp’s white soldiers. So Boston is caught in the middle, forced to prove himself to the bigoted white officers and to his jealous fellow black servicemen. And his friendship with his sympathetic white commanding officer (a fairly wooden Thomas Haden Church) doesn’t win him any fans.
This is the film’s most compelling dynamic and it leads up to the inevitable mutiny and march into Houston. The lid blows off as the men of the 24th are pushed to the point where the line between right and wrong are blurred at best, completely rubbed out at its worst. It’s an ugly and violent final act – a complex melding of righteous indignation and cold-blooded murder. In some scenes Willmott attempts to dull the edge of the killings. But he also makes it uncomfortable to watch and he captures the pure, pained emotions of the soldiers. “Ain’t nobody innocent here soldier,” the sergeant rationalizes. “Not them, not us, nobody.”￼ It’s a really difficult line to walk.
As the movie ended I was left with a feeling of sadness and conflict (although I’m not sure if that was the film’s intent). Willmott and Byers do a nice job boiling up the anger in not only the oppressed 24th but also any fair-minded viewer. And while they effectively show how unconscionable treatment can push people to unconscionable actions, the film’s judgements are pretty muted. Unfortunately the movie’s dependence on archetypes shortchanges several of its characters. And some story angles don’t get the attention they need. Take Boston’s romance with a local girl named ￼￼Marie (Aja Naomi King). It’s genuinely sweet yet wedged in and underwritten. Those are the kinds of things that strip “The 24th” of certain personal connections it needed to truly stand out. Still, I’m glad I watched it and it’s a story that needs to be told. “The 24th” is now available on VOD.
VERDICT – 3 STARS