It’s unclear who the audience is for director Kevin Willmott’s “The 24th,” a solemn look at a crucial and under-seen moment in Black history that mostly feels like homework. This portrait of an infantry of Black soldiers who, in 1917, stood up to horrifying police brutality has plenty going for it, including a few strong performances and an evocatively Southern-tinged mood. But it’s ultimately an agitprop package, and a glumly executed history lesson that might serve well in a classroom, yet can’t justify itself as a cinematic experience on its own.
As a story of Black rebellion against corrupt and monstrous law enforcement, “The 24th” arrives at a critical moment as America stares down the maw of its inherently racist past and tries to figure out where to go from here. The largely forgotten episode in question is the Camp Logan mutiny that took place in Houston, where Black soldiers eager to serve their country stood up to a vile police force, and staged a coup that resulted in a staggering murder trial which, tragically and inevitably, did not land in favor of the mutineers. Trai Byers, also a co-screenwriter on the film, plays Boston, a Black soldier who pledges fervent allegiance to his country and his race, but any of his advocacy is dismissed by his white superiors, who prefer to think of him as a military tool doing America’s bidding.
Colonel Norton (Thomas Hayden Church), however, sees the potential in recruiting Black soldiers, much to the chagrin of his colleagues who are still firmly rooted in an Antebellum mentality. It’s Texas, after all, and slavery only ended just over half a century prior, and “The 24th” convincingly sets the scene for a racially fractious South. The movie builds well on the tense camaraderie among members of the infantry — lurching between jadedness and confused loyalty — who all find ways to either rebel against or settle into a white world mostly inconvenienced by them, and one that regards them as nothing but “the cleanup crew.”
Byers is a charming lead, but the trouble is that the screenplay relies on him to be a mouthpiece for a message rather than an actual, full-fledged person. There are flashes of cinematic brilliance here, thanks to cinematography by Brett Pawlak and crisp editing from Mollie Goldstein, including a horrific beating juxtaposed against an image of the American flag. The movie seems to say, “This is the broken American way,” but doesn’t know where to go from there. Still, the bluntness of the image is hard to ignore, and will hardly be lost on even the least discerning of viewers.
There’s just not much of a soul happening here, with primarily expository dialogue and scenes that feel stacked on top of each other rather than organically melded into a languid, flowing whole. All of the actors exhibit considerable effort to keep the story, and its necessary plea, moving. But the script peddles platitudes that don’t leave much room for nuance or complication. A romance between Boston and a haunted local woman (a poignant Aja Naomi King) brings a touch of humanity and reason to care, but never seems to find a groove within the rest of the film.
The riot that the movie builds to is too organized, visually, to stir much in the way of tension, though emotional images of the casualties toward the film’s finale provide a moving endpoint. Yet little in the way of chaos is captured in the way the soldiers revolt, and this underscores the overall problem of the movie in that everything feels just a bit too safe and contained, polished with a stately lacquer. There’s a ferocity wanting to break out that never seems to, and perhaps you could look to Willmott’s work as co-writer of Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and “Da 5 Bloods” for a deeper and darker depiction of racially charged horrors. But “The 24th” means well, and while it, sadly, mostly elicits a shrug, what the film lacks in pizzaz it more than makes up for in educational value, for better or worse.
“The 24th” is now available on digital, VOD, and in virtual cinemas, from Vertical Entertainment.