On the evening of August 23rd, 1917, while American boys fought next to their brethren overseas, a group of soldiers marched into the streets of Houston, Texas. They begun firing on locals, many of whom were officers of the law. By the time the sun rose the next morning, 11 civilians, five policeman and four Army personnel who’d come to investigate the melee were dead. A trial ensued, which ended with 58 out of the 63 soldiers found guilty, and 19 of those men summarily executed. It bears mentioning that these men were part of the 24th U.S. Infantry, an all-black regiment who had been assigned to protect the construction of a new training outpost. It’s should also be said that — subjected to the cruelties of the Jim Crow South both inside and outside the camp’s walls — there was a strong element of self-defense involved, and that they’d been pushed far past the breaking point before shots were fired.
Both a history lesson and a gut-punch reminder of how said history keeps repeating itself, The 24th revisits this incident with a lapel-grabbing sense of immediacy. For many folks — too many — it may be the first they’ve heard of what became known as the Camp Logan Mutiny and, alternately, the Houston Riots of 1917, much less the facts behind the case. But this recreation also contextualizes the tragedy in a way that makes the confrontation horribly inevitable, and writer-director Kevin Willmott wants viewers to know, should they somehow have forgotten, the bigger world in which this event took place. A filmmaker used to sifting through the past in a number of creative ways (see: his Sundance-approved, speculative-fiction satire CSA: The Confederate States of America) and a co-writer of Spike Lee’s recent three-film winning streak (Chi-Raq, BlacKkKlansman and Da 5 Bloods), Willmott knows how to channel an age when someone like William Boston (co-writer Trau Byers) could fight for our democracy while still being denied full access to it. But what about the rights of an upstanding military man who represents the true spirit of our nation, he asks? As one character says, “A Negro in Houston, Texas … he has no rights.”
Boston is stuck fighting a war on three fronts: the prejudices of a segregated, hostile white population; the inherent distrust of fellow troops who view his Sorbonne education and light complexion as both an unfair advantage and a threat (after a promotion, he becomes “Corporal High-Falutin'”); and the insistence of a colonel (Thomas Haden Church) that he leave the Lone Star and start officer training elsewhere. The soldier merely wants to do his duty and serve his country. He’d also like to court Marie (Aja Naomi King), a piano player at the local dancehall — in terms of pick-up lines, we tip our hats to “Do you know any Eubie Blake?” When the base’s commanding officer is called away, however, a less sympathetic man takes the reins. Then a cop who’s previously hassled members of the 24th, and who has it out for Boston in particular, assaults a young black mother in town. The temperature rises from simmering to a full boil.
What follows is violence, and another example of past racial injustices that seems to mirror and echo ones still happening in the present. Willmott doesn’t underline the connection, because he doesn’t need to. The same goes for his cast, who understand the importance of giving this cinematic corrective a sense of urgency and that then-and-now gaps will naturally be filled in. Not every performance works — there are moments when you fear that some exchanges are on the brink of turning into a community college production of A Soldier’s Play — but the ones that do stand out, notably Byers and Justified‘s Mykeiti Williamson as an older, fatalistic sergeant. (There’s also a monologue delivered by Sherman’s Showcase co-founder Bashir Salahuddin, about having to identify family members’ remains at a morgue, that’s absolutely devastating.)
You wish the film was tighter in some spots and simply less threadbare in others, that a few key scenes double their dimensions from one to two. Then along comes a shot of, say, a row of bodies in coffins or the single most sorrowful rendition of “Over There,” and you find yourself unexpectedly floored. The 24th has its share of unevenness. It also has the blessing, and the curse, of necessity. It’s a story that has to be retold.