A stun­ning story of U.S. soldiers bat­tling Texas cops dur­ing WWI

‘The 24th’ an­other movie with un­for­tu­nate par­al­lels to to­day’s Amer­ica

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - BY RICHARD ROEPER, MOVIE COLUM­NIST rroeper@sun­times.com | @RichardERo­eper

So many Amer­i­can his­tor­i­cal dra­mas set decades in the dis­tant past have dis­tinct and un­for­tu­nate par­al­lels to to­day’s world, and that’s cer­tainly the case with “The 24th,” a solid and some­times stun­ning and sober­ing fic­tion­al­iza­tion of a largely for­got­ten and hor­rific chap­ter in Amer­i­can his­tory: the Hous­ton Riot of 1917, when mem­bers of the all-Black 24th U.S. In­fantry Reg­i­ment sta­tioned at Camp Lo­gan in Har­ris County, Texas, re­belled against ha­rass­ment from the lo­cal po­lice depart­ment and mem­bers of the com­mu­nity, marched on Hous­ton and ini­ti­ated deadly shootouts.

Let that sink in. Amer­i­can soldiers en­gag­ing in armed bat­tle with Amer­i­can law en­force­ment, on Amer­i­can soil. How did this hap­pen? How COULD this hap­pen?

Direc­tor and co-writer Kevin Will­mott (who co-wrote “BlacKkKlan­s­man” and “Da 5 Bloods” with Spike Lee) un­folds the story in straight­for­ward, no-frills fash­ion. We see most events from the view­point of Bos­ton (Trai By­ers, best known as An­dre on “Em­pire,” who co-wrote the screen­play with Will­mott), the son of abo­li­tion­ists who grad­u­ated from the Sor­bonne and joined the 24th Reg­i­ment shortly af­ter the United States de­clared war on the Ger­man Em­pire.

Bos­ton has a burn­ing de­sire to join the fight over­seas, but he en­coun­ters im­me­di­ate re­sis­tance within the ranks, most no­tably from the Span­ish-Amer­i­can war vet­eran Sgt. Hayes (Mykelti Wil­liamson), who is em­bit­tered by years of be­ing treated like a sec­ond-class cit­i­zen by Army brass.

The al­ways reli­able Thomas Haden Church adds grav­i­tas to a some­what clichéd role: the reg­i­ment’s com­man­der, Col. Norton, who sees great po­ten­tial in Bos­ton and is aware of ten­sions be­tween some of the white of­fi­cers and the Black soldiers, not to men­tion the out­right hos­til­ity to­ward the Black troops from the Hous­ton cops and many cit­i­zens.

A rel­a­tively pas­sive leader, he takes a trans­fer just as things are reach­ing the boil­ing point in Hous­ton, as ten­sions have es­ca­lated to the point of po­lice beat­ing a Black sol­dier and a Black woman in sep­a­rate in­ci­dents. Some of the scenes in­volv­ing hate-filled vi­o­lence are tough to watch, but nec­es­sary to the nar­ra­tive.

Direc­tor Will­mott ex­pands the story to in­clude a lovely ro­mance be­tween Bos­ton and a pi­anist named Marie (Aja Naomi King), who wor­ries Bos­ton’s ide­al­ism and naivete could get him into trou­ble.

There are a few too many stop-and-give-a-speech mo­ments in “The 24th,” whether it’s Sgt. Hayes de­liv­er­ing mul­ti­ple mono­logues or Bos­ton ral­ly­ing the troops, who have come to look up to him and fol­low his lead when ru­mors swirl about a Black sol­dier be­ing killed by po­lice and a white mob plan­ning to storm Camp Lo­gan. As Bos­ton and dozens of his fel­low soldiers arm them­selves and head to the streets of Hous­ton, the ten­sion builds with ev­ery mo­ment as the shots ring out in nu­mer­ous con­fronta­tions, re­sult­ing in the deaths of 11 civil­ians, five po­lice­men and four soldiers.

“The 24th” is an im­por­tant re­minder of a dark chap­ter in Amer­i­can his­tory. It is an un­flinch­ing look at grotesque big­otry to­ward young Black Amer­i­can patriots who only wanted to serve their coun­try — but it makes no apolo­gies for the ac­tions of some of those soldiers, 19 of whom were ex­e­cuted and 41 sen­tenced to life im­pris­on­ment for their part in the Hous­ton Riot of 1917.

VER­TI­CAL EN­TER­TAIN­MENT

When Bos­ton (Trai By­ers) joins the Army, he is de­ter­mined to fight the Ger­mans over­seas in “The 24th.”

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