THE STORY – Members of the Army’s all-Black 24th Infantry Regiment become involved in a deadly riot in Houston in 1917.
THE CAST – Trai Byers, Bashir Salahuddin, Aja Naomi King, Mo McRae, Tosin Morohunfola, Mykelti Williamson & Thomas Haden Church
THE TEAM – Kevin Willmott (Director/Writer) & Trai Byers (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 101 Minutes
By Danilo Castro
On Aug. 23, 1917, the all-Black third battalion of the U.S. Army’s 24th Infantry Regiment mutinied against their commanding officers in Houston. The violence that followed claimed the lives of four policemen, two soldiers, and nine civilians. The subsequent murder trial was the largest in American history. One hundred and ten of the 118 soldiers were found guilty, and 19 were hanged.
The social implications of the mutiny and subsequent murder trial are still being felt in the wake of the George Floyd protests, and “The 24th” is quick to highlight these modern-day parallels. It’s a film that recognizes its timeliness and embraces it. It has its flaws, but the tenacity of the cast and the tenderness of writer-director Kevin Willmott ensure that it never strays too far from quality.
The film establishes the third battalion through the eyes of William Boston (Trai Byers), a learned soldier who experienced racial equality during his time in Europe. His enlightened take on race puts him at odds with the other soldiers in the battalion, however, as many of them are products of the Jim Crow South. Chief among these soldiers is Sgt. Hayes (Mykelti Williamson), a hard-drinking veteran who thinks it foolish to expect anything but hostility from his white peers.
The soldiers are eager to defend their country against German forces, but they must first contend with the hostile adversaries on their home soil. Each man is subjected to physical and emotional abuse at the hands of local police, commanding officers, and the occasional civilian. The tragic irony of African American men defending a country that labels them outsiders is not lost on the screenwriters, and some of the film’s most impactful moments derive from this troubling dynamic.
The scene where policemen detain the cocksure Walker (Mo McRae) on a trolley is masterfully handled, capturing both the fear and the outrage that the character is experiencing in real-time. Sgt. Hayes’s musings on the Spanish-American War makes for a similarly gut-wrenching moment. He tells Boston of his numerous achievements on the battlefield, only to see his bravery scrubbed from the public record. It’s a bravura showcase for Williamson, a disarmingly talented character actor who, like Hayes, has never really been given his due.
Willmott lacks the directorial panache of his frequent collaborator Spike Lee, but he compensates through sound stylistic choices and a keen eye for characterization. The earth tones that dominate much of the film take on greater significance when blood starts to spill and the visual clash that results is startling. Willmott must also be commended on his handling of the ensemble cast. Each actor is given a chance to shine, but their believable chemistry as a unit is what sets “The 24th” apart from other like-minded war films.
We would be remiss if we didn’t discuss the film’s stray issues. The screenplay by Willmott and Byers can sometimes veer into cliché, especially when it comes to the depiction of white characters. Barring the well-meaning Col. Norton (a woefully miscast Thomas Haden Church), the rest of the commanding officers come off as one-dimensional monsters. It’s a logical choice given the subject matter, but it flattens nuance that could have otherwise benefited the story.
Some of the choices in dialogue prove to be a bit distracting. We can understand modernizing certain phrases or outdated words, but there are times throughout “The 24th” where it feels as though we’re listening to contemporary soldiers speak. The dialogue choices also fuel the script’s more ham-fisted moments, like when a racist civilian proclaims that they’re going to “take [their] country back.” It’s a phrase obviously meant to evoke the current state of America, but it’s so blatantly presented that it takes us out of the world of the film.
Even with these issues in mind, “The 24th” manages to come out on top. It’s handling of racial and social issues is deft, and its attempt to parallel the injustices going on today is commendable (if not entirely successful). We can view the film as the last in an unofficial trilogy of Willmott scripts alongside “BlacKkKlansman” (2018) and “Da 5 Bloods” (2020), as all three pinpoint crucial instances of oppression in American history. They may be troubling to watch, but that’s precisely why they are important.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Kevin Willmott pulls excellent performances from his ensemble cast, and his deft staging makes for some undeniably powerful moments.
THE BAD – The film’s attempt to parallel current events can sometimes come off ham-fisted, and the contemporary dialogue feels at odds with the period setting.