Kevin Willmott’s THE 24TH Ponders an Alternative Reason for “Why We Fight”

New on VOD, the true story of a dark chapter in American history

Because of the subject of The 24th is a historical event, I will openly discuss aspects of the film which might be considered narrative spoilers. So here’s the brief non-spoiler version: The 24th is the latest film from writer, director, and oft Spike Lee collaborator Kevin Willmott, exploring racial tensions that erupt in Houston, Texas between restless African American infantry troops and the racist local police and populace. It’s a thoughtful and well-made telling of a difficult and dark chapter of American history, and I recommend checking it out!

Today, August 23rd, is the 103rd anniversary of the Houston Riot of 1917, when members of the all-black 24th US Infantry at Camp Logan retaliated against acts of violence and racism by marching on Houston and opening fire — by the time it was over, not only were their targets dead, but many civilians as well.

The story centers on a brilliant and conscientious soldier named Boston (Trai Byers, who co-wrote the screenplay with Willmott), a transplant who was born to slaves in America but sent away and educated in Europe, and upon returning home to serve his country, finds his refined manner puts him at odds with both white and black society.

His wish is to go back to Europe, to fight for the US in the Great War, but the black soldiers of the 24th Infantry aren’t treated as military men, but as the dregs of the Army, stuck in an assignment devoid of purpose — despite the best efforts of their commander Col. Norton (Thomas Haden Church), a conscientious white man who respects his men and does his best to defuse tensions between his black soldiers and the local white populace. It’s a difficult and thankless task, as racist tensions continue to mount, and sometimes come to blows, with the corrupt and racist police force.

Mykelti Williamson (Forrest Gump’s Bubba) is particularly notable as Sgt. Hayes, the grizzled and embittered Sarge who has given his life to the army and country only to be continually disappointed by both. It’s he who leads the retaliatory attack, a mutiny which quickly spirals wildly out of control.

The Houston riot is a dark chapter of history, and one that might be easily left forgotten — and was trending in that direction before this film brought it back into the general consciousness. But that’s never been a problem for director and co-writer Kevin Willmott, who excels not only at uncovering and sharing these kinds of stories, but also at viewing the present through the lens of the past.

You may not know his name, but if you’re a fan of Spike Lee, then you’ve seen his Oscar-winning work on the screenplay of BlacKkKlansman, as well as Chi-Raq and this year’s Netflix sensation Da Five Bloods.

Willmott certainly seems a natural collaborator to Lee. Both are gifted storytellers with specific interest and emphasis on the black experience, and more generally on social topics. And like Lee, who famously instructs at NYU, Willmott is a teacher. Not only by nature, but by profession, at the University of Kansas.

It’s in close context of his work at KU’s Department of Film & Media Studies that Wilmott has written and directed several low-budget dramas and racial satires, often crafted and cast with the assistance of his talented students.

The 24th (which reunites Willmott with Byers and Tosin Morohunfola, who both had major roles in 2013’s Destination Planet Negro), is a big step up from Willmott’s prior directorial ventures — while many of those had much bigger, wilder concepts, this is the first to feel at home in the mainstream arena — presumably the benefit afforded by winning an Oscar and working closely with Spike Lee. The film is nicely shot and crafted, and well-acted with a terrific cast.

Most of all, it tells a very difficult and morally complex story without sanitizing, glorifying, or broadly justifying what transpired. Adherence to the historical facts of the case preclude the film from cinematic magic (the real story doesn’t conform to that kind of storytelling), but also make it a fascinating historical document of both past and present. Sadly, this chapter of history carries modern implications which are all too obvious. It’s often asked why people — particularly black people — riot or loot in reaction to injustice, responding evil for evil. The 24th sheds light on the answer: when treated as less than human, when faced with constant indignity, violence, psychological torture, and degradation, the response of all that pent-up anger and frustration is one of desperation.

An extra spoilery post-script — for after you’ve seen the film:

Upon ruminating for awhile on the film and its shocking climax, the narrative layout of the attack feels even more deliberate and thematically resonant. It begins with direct retaliation against the antagonists who have constantly terrorized and attacked our protagonists. GET ‘EM!! We’re fully on board, they had it coming. The next skirmish also kills some deputized men who weren’t part of the police force or of the original conflicts. Well, that’s collateral damage, I guess — and they chose their side, after all.

But in this moment we starting to let our guard down, and as the audience we are experiencing how revenge is consuming us, warping our perspective. It fully consumes some of the men of the 24th, who keep killing, even civilian bystanders. At which point did it all go wrong? I think this question alone could fuel a lot of interesting discussion.

A/V Out.

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