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Review: A 1917 uprising sadly resonates more than 100 years later in ‘The 24th’

Mo McRae, left, and Trai Byers in the movie "The 24th."
Mo McRae, left, and Trai Byers in the movie “The 24th.”
(Vertical Entertainment)

It was 1917, but it could have been any one of too many years since the Civil War, including 2020. The U.S. was a powder keg of racial unrest with white-on-Black violence breaking out in places such as East St. Louis, Ill., and Chester, Penn., when the U.S. Army’s 24th regiment arrived in Houston to guard the construction of Camp Logan. As the country rallied to support the war effort in Europe, it seethed with internal conflict.

An all-Black unit, the 24th was trained for combat but was not allowed to go to France to fight alongside white soldiers; many of the men were unprepared for the harsh treatment they would receive under the Jim Crow laws that governed the segregated Texas city. A series of incidents between Black citizens and the bigoted white police force and attempted intervention by members of the 24th resulted in a deadly uprising that left more than 20 people dead.

Writer-director Kevin Willmott once saw a photograph of the men of the 24th surrounded by white soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets. It was captioned “The largest murder trial in American history,” and that striking image stuck with the filmmaker for decades.

Wilmott’s affecting historical drama “The 24th,” inspired by the Houston riot of 1917, bears both the weight of that history and the filmmaker’s passion for the subject matter.

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In his collaborations with Spike Lee on “Chi-Raq,” the Oscar-winning “BlacKkKlansman” and the recent “Da 5 Bloods,” as well as with his own films such as the satirical mockumentary “CSA: The Confederate States of America” and the civil rights era basketball drama “Jayhawkers,” Wilmott has demonstrated a knack for granting great urgency to moments from the nation’s tattered past.

In “The 24th,” Willmott does not go to great lengths to point out contemporary parallels or attempt to make the narrative more relevant. He didn’t need to. In fact, he takes a fairly conventional path in telling this largely unknown story primarily through the eyes of a light-skinned Black man named William Boston, loosely based on a historical figure, Cpl. Charles William Baltimore.

For Boston, Wilmott found not only a charismatic leading man but a co-writer in Trai Byers of TV’s “Empire,” once a student of Wilmott at the University of Kansas. Resented by whites and distrusted by his fellow Black soldiers, the Sorbonne-educated Boston feels a responsibility to reach back and help other African Americans.

Thomas Haden Church, left, and Trai Byers in the movie "The 24th."
(Vertical Entertainment)
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To that end, Boston rejects an offer from his commander, Col. Charles Norton (a stoic Thomas Haden Church), to attend officer candidate school, preferring to remain and fight for the rights of the enlisted men. The decision turns out to be a fateful one as Boston battles a degree of racism he could only imagine while he was living in Paris.

Boston and Norton forge a relationship of mutual respect, one rooted in their shared feeling that the Black soldiers possess as much honor and courage as any man. Willmott acknowledges that Norton, a composite character whose career has been thwarted by his devotion to the Black troops, is likely a better man than existed at Camp Logan in 1917, but the film steadfastly avoids “white savior” syndrome, allowing him to show that even the most well-intended people can be pushed to a point of compromise.

Willmott leans heavily on archetypes for the characters who surround Boston. There is the hotheaded Walker (Mo McRae), who suggests Boston may not be Black enough; good-natured Big Joe (Bashir Salahuddin); and most pivotally, First Sgt. Hayes (Mykelti Williamson), a cynical, seen-it-all career soldier who charged up San Juan Hill beside Teddy Roosevelt and who rides Boston mercilessly, suspecting the young man will cut and run once the going gets tough.

Trai Byers and Aja Naomi King in the movie "The 24th."
(Vertical Entertainment)
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We also see familiar figures in the three avatars of hate who plague Boston: Tommy Lee (Tony DeMil), a laborer who degrades the soldiers in unimaginable ways; the sadistic police officer Jimmy Cross (Cuyle Carvin), whose actions precipitate the uprising; and Norton’s second-in-command, Capt. Abner Lockhart (Jim Klock), whose resemblance to mustache-less Adolf Hitler cannot be a coincidence.

The film’s nods to Hollywood storytelling include a romantic subplot in which Boston woos Marie Downing (Aja Naomi King), the musically-gifted daughter of a preacher, by discussing Scott Joplin and Eubie Blake. Fine work by cinematographer Brett Pawlak, production designer Jonathan Carlson and costume designer Michael T. Boyd give the independent film the period sheen of a high-end studio production. The haunting, robust score by Alex Heffes and Mollie Goldstein’s crisp editing ensure that “The 24th” never wanes.

Willmott presents the events as a tragic explosion of violence, one that feels both inevitable and futile, created by the same vicious circle of fear that exists today. In many ways, his classical approach to the filmmaking leaves us vulnerable to the gut-punch of the film’s climax and resolution. For even though we know what’s coming, nothing can really prepare us for the sense of helplessness that follows and the reminder of the persistent need to do better and be better.

‘The 24th’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Playing: Available Aug. 21 via virtual cinemas and on digital and VOD

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