Just in case it wasn’t obvious before, the recent demonstrations over the death of George Floyd have done much to lay bare just how spotty and incomplete much of America’s understanding of its own racial history has often been. While any schoolkid can rattle off facts about the March on Washington and the 13th Amendment, the complicated, messy, often horrifyingly violent timeline of racism and social justice in this country has long been oversimplified in school curricula and popular discourse, to the extent that some seismic events within that history — from Nat Turner’s rebellion to the Black Wall Street massacre — were largely unknown to large swaths of the country until very recently.
Both of those moments, however, have been dragged to the forefront by film and television over the past few years — “The Birth of a Nation” for the former, and HBO’s “Watchmen” with the latter — and “The 24th” looks to shine some light on yet another. Directed and written by Kevin Willmott (whose many Spike Lee screenplay collaborations include an Oscar win for “BlacKkKlansman”), “24th” is a lightly fictionalized retelling of the Camp Logan mutiny of 1917, in which an all-Black Army battalion took up arms in the streets of Houston after multiple incidents of brutality from the local police, leading to what was at the time the largest murder trial in American history. Buoyed by a charismatic performance from star and co-screenwriter Trai Byers, “The 24th” can at times be cumbersomely didactic and formulaic, but it finds plenty of contemporary relevance in a story that should be far more widely known than it is.
As the film begins, the 24th infantry division has just been relocated from New Mexico to Camp Logan in Texas. With the Great War raging overseas, they’re all hoping to see action in France, if for no other reason than to finally get a chance to travel the world. There’s one member of the group who’s already done that: the sophisticated, idealistic William Boston (Byers), who studied at the Sorbonne prior to enlisting. Loosely based on the real-life soldier Charles Baltimore, Boston is an exemplar of W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the “talented tenth,” and has joined the Army partially in an attempt to set an example and help uplift his fellow Black soldiers. That doesn’t necessarily sit well with all of them, however, and some, particularly the hard-bitten Walker (Mo McRae), make no secret of their resentment and skepticism.
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The men are eager to take the fight to the Germans abroad, but face equally hostile adversaries at home in the form of sadistic police forces, violent locals, and unsympathetic superior officers. It doesn’t take long before a defiant Walker is brutally accosted by two thuggish cops on a trolley, and a near-feral construction worker on the base is itching for any excuse to attack the newcomers. The local colonel, however, named Norton (Thomas Haden Church), is more progressive: He commands Black troops by choice, hopes to take them to the front, and sees officer potential in Boston.
Meanwhile, Boston doggedly pursues a local girl named Marie (Aja Naomi King), who harbors some dark secrets as well as a hidden talent for ragtime piano. Their relationship is a sweet one, and King does sharp work delineating the class divisions within the era’s Black society, but the romance ultimately feels a bit shoehorned in; a relatively by-the-numbers subplot that siphons energy away from the more evocative conflicts simmering back on the base.
Willmott is deft at identifying the nexuses of drama within the ranks, however, whether it’s Boston’s tension with his more jaded fellow soldiers (Mykelti Williamson is particularly good as a veteran sergeant who saw his bravery in the Spanish-American War erased from the popular narrative), or the delicate back-and-forth he plays with Col. Norton. The latter dynamic feels particularly relevant in the present era, offering a lens through which to explore the limits and complexities of white allyship.
Norton sincerely believes in empowering the Black troops under his command and offers Boston numerous opportunities for advancement, yet all of them come with heavy compromises attached, and all take place within the context of a subordinate relationship — in the end, those complications prove too onerous to bear. One could imagine an entire two-hander stage play explicating this uneasy alliance, yet some of it ultimately falls flat here, with Church’s performance too passive and anachronistically modern to make the relationship fully believable.
The mutiny itself is interestingly staged, Willmott cutting to and fro as the screws tighten through several rounds of miscommunication, anxiety and mistrust, and the final spark that sets the wheels in motion is curiously underplayed, for reasons that will become clear later. Though it entered the annals of history as a “riot,” Willmott’s depiction never looks much like a riot at all, with the men marching in strict formation, an air of sobriety undergirding each maneuver.
In real life, these soldiers killed a number of the oppressive white cops, but also several unlucky civilians and, in a moment of confusion, a few fellow soldiers. Willmott never tries to offer easy excuses for this, and denies the moment the type of bloody catharsis that a more rousing treatment might have lent to it, which feels appropriate; none of the men involved in the mutiny have any illusions about the fate that awaits them later. In that regard, the ending proves particularly powerful, as Willmott manages to find glimmers of pride in a story that couldn’t possibly have a happy ending.