Prior to watching “The 24th,” I was not aware of the Houston Riot of 1917, nor the story of the all-Black 24th United States Infantry Regiment that was involved.
The film, which opens at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center this Friday, is written and directed by Kevin Willmott, a writer on many of Spike Lee’s acclaimed films. “The 24th” aims to bring attention to the often-overlooked story of the titular regiment of the US Army, and it benefits from the audience’s lack of education regarding its central historical event.
The film opens with a crowd of Black men on trial. The audience isn’t told why they’re on trial. The only information that is provided is the judge telling the men they’ve dishonored their country. The film then cuts back to the past and shows these same men working and training at a military base near Houston.
Throughout the film, “The 24th” showcases its characters as complex individuals with conflicts not too dissimilar from those of the Black community today. The film’s central characters are happy living their lives. They form friendships, fall in love and dream of being the first Black regiment to be sent to France to fight in the first World War. However, all of this is happening while the group cannot escape the racism and bigotry that runs rampant both in nearby Houston and on their own base. They cannot go to town without being spit on by civilians or assaulted by local police. They cannot work in peace on-base without being harassed and, on one occasion, urinated on by local contractors and various others.
The film is all about showcasing the humanity of these men. This sentiment is plainly echoed by the film’s tagline “I am a man,” which is spoken on several occasions during the story.
“The 24th” builds these soldiers up as a proud, smart and kind group of people who are just looking for the opportunity to serve their country and prove to everyone that they are not lesser than anyone else. While watching the film, it’s easy to get swept up in the various plights of these men and forget about that enigmatic opening scene. I certainly forgot about it, which is what makes the film’s final act so shocking.
I don’t want to discuss the events of the film’s last act too in-depth, but I will say the film so brilliantly builds to its conclusion that once it gets there everything effortlessly falls into place. There’s no wondering why, and there’s no questioning of motivations. Even with the events being as horrific as they are, it’s easy to comprehend the actions that lead to everything transpiring the way it does.
Adding to the emotional connection felt for the central group of characters were the powerful performances from the whole cast.
Trai Byers in particular plays a soldier named Boston who arrives at the military base in the film’s opening act. Boston mostly serves as the film’s lead character, as many of the events are presented from his point of view. Byers was absolutely fantastic in the role. He managed to convey Boston’s conflict of serving as a middleman between the Black infantry and the local white community incredibly well. The character is mostly reserved and in control of his emotions. He carefully picks and articulates his words, but he isn’t afraid to stand up for himself and his fellow soldiers. Byers presented all of this in spectacular fashion. It’s the kind of performance that feels like it should be a good stepping stone to a much larger and more successful career. I hope that it is because, based on this performance, Byers is an actor that deserves significantly more recognition.
“The 24th” is a tremendously compelling and emotional film that isn’t afraid of getting its hands dirty.
Films detailing historical events are a dime a dozen these days, but not all of them are as hard-hitting as “The 24th.” It’s a film that feels like it should be shown in high school American History classes around the country, but probably won’t because it’s too intense and uncomforting.