On Aug. 23, 1917, four months after the U.S. had entered World War I, the all-Black 3rd battalion of the U.S. Army’s 24th Infantry Regiment mutinied in Houston. That night’s two hours of violence left nine civilians, four policemen and two soldiers dead. It resulted in the largest murder trial in U.S. history in which 110 out of 118 soldiers were found guilty. Nineteen were hanged.
The riot was incited by an incident between an African American woman and the police, and their subsequent beating of one of the soldiers. But it wasn’t just that day that sparked the violence. As is most often the case with major eruptions, tensions had been brewing and indignities accumulating for some time between the African American regiment and the white police force.
The white police in Houston in 1917 not only did not see the uniformed soldiers as equals but were offended by their very existence — never mind the courageous history of African American troops throughout U.S. history to that point.
It’s this story that’s told in writer-director Kevin Willmott’s “ The 24th,” a blisteringly relevant and important look at an under-explored chapter in our history.
Willmott, who won an Oscar for writing “BlacKkKlansman” with Spike Lee, brings the audience into this world through co-writer Trai Byers' William Boston, a highly educated and cosmopolitan character who has lived in Europe, seen what equality looks and feels like and is eager to share his enlightenment with his peers. His fellow servicemen aren’t exactly open subjects for his teachings, however. Many are both uneducated and products of the Jim Crow South.
But even if they clash over Boston’s lighter skin and his affectations, they did all end up in the same place for a reason. The men of the 24th wanted to serve the country that has never served them back. They thought that in uniform they’d get equal treatment. Instead, they get bullied, tormented, abused and disrespected by nearly every white person in town.
There are exceptions, including in Col. Norton (a miscast Thomas Haden Church, who sounds far too modern for the role), who oversees the men at Camp Logan, which they are bound to protect while it’s under construction. But one ally is hardly enough and he has very little power anyway.
The hard-drinking and jaded Sgt. Hayes (Mykelti Williamson) knows it’s a fool’s errand to assume they’ll get any respect or equality through service: He learned that the hard way as a Buffalo Solider leading the charge at San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, as he explains in a stirring speech to Boston.
This is a difficult story in which violence and dehumanization beget violence and dehumanization. It is sobering material that Willmott mostly handles well in making it as straightforward as possible. He also has an appealing protagonist in Boston. You get to know him and the other men before the night and feel their rage. Aja Naomi King is also a standout as a local piano player, Marie, who Boston falls for.
There are some liberties taken with some modern-sounding dialogue and phrasing that are likely there as shorthand for the audience but that sometimes feel a little too on the nose. In one instance, a racist local proclaims that they’re going to “take our country back.” I’m not sure that the script needed to be that obvious for us to understand the parallels to today. And many of those portraying racists here have also chosen to go big and obvious — snarling, sweating and spitting their lines to drive the point home. It’s hard not to wonder if a little more subtlety there would have been more powerful and insidious.
But it is a sobering and worthwhile film for its exploration of the subject of police brutality and race and how little has really changed in over a century.
“The 24th,” a Vertical Entertainment release has not been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 113 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr