Oscar-winning screenwriter Kevin Willmott makes a return to the director’s chair for the first time in seven years in The 24th from Vertical Entertainment. Following the lead established by John Singleton’s still underrated Rosewood and the opening sequence from HBO’S Emmy nominated Watchmen, Willmott uses the film medium to highlight a little known history act involving racism bigotry. The 24th is the story of the all-black 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment and their part in the Houston riot of 1917.
Willmott opens with a glorious black & white scene showcasing the military men on trial for an unknown reason, before flashing back and letting us know how we get here. One of the first men we meet is Boston (Trai Byers), a college-educated man by way of Paris’s Sorbonne University. Boston instantly connects with the base’s commanding officer Col. Norton (Thomas Haden Church), due to his natural leadership abilities. Outside of the seasoned military man Sgt. Hayes (Mykelti Williamson) and Pvt. Walker (Mo McRae), Boston is generally liked by the platoon.
Despite internal issues amongst themselves, the 24th knows they need to stick together in the segregated city of Houston, where Jim Crow is the law. To make matters worse, Col. Norton’s second in command, Cross (Cuyle Carvin), is just as evil as the Houston residents. He makes it no secret that he sees the black soldiers as less than men, even though he has to serve side by side with them.
Hoping to improve race relations, Col. Norton promotes Boston to serve as a liaison between the local police and the military. Naturally, the good intentions fall on deaf ears, and through a series of miscommunications, a riot occurs. While I won’t reveal the depths of what leads to the riots, I commend Kevin Willmott and co-writer Trai’s build-up to the riot.
Fresh from a six-year run on FOX’s Empire, Byers is excellent in his first lead role. He portrays Boston, a man who generally sees the best in everyone. While Boston has a college education, he never carries himself as better than anyone else. We watch Boston grow from a naïve young adult to a man who commands respect and will use his fists only as a last resort. In contrast to the bigotry he receives from the whites in town, Boston has to deal with haters in his platoon from Sgt. Hayes (Mykelti Williamson) and Pvt. Walker (Mo McRae).
Sgt. Hayes thinks that Boston is arrogant, while Pvt. Walker dislikes Boston because Boston has lighter skin. The tension between the men is realistic, and it’s sad that the issue still continues today. On the contrary, I also found much to like with Col Norton’s character. Thomas Haden Church has become quite the dramatic actor in recent years. It is sometimes hard to forget his comedic work from the show Wings.
The rest of the men who make up the platoon include comedian Bashir Salahuddin as Big Joe and The Chi season 1 actor Tosin Morohunfola as Franklin. Both men provide quality work, as does Aja Naomi King, who portrays Boston’s love interest, Marie. Byers has a unique chemistry with everyone in the supporting cast.
No stranger to the Black military experience, Willmott, who previously co-wrote the Vietnam themed Da 5 Bloods with Spike Lee, takes his time with the film. Watching the film with my wife, I was somewhat reminded of Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, given the pacing choices Willmott makes. There aren’t a ton of battle scenes, nor are there any drawn-out military training sequences. Instead, we have a true to life story about human interaction and how we treat each other while using the military as the backdrop.
One of the lines that stood out to me the most was from Boston when he says, “All we want, sir, is to be treated equally as soldiers and men.” When racial tensions are at an all-time high, The 24th serves as a reminder that there is only so much hate a man can take before he fights back.
With great acting from its entire cast, I highly recommend The 24th. As a veteran myself, and the son and grandson of military veterans, stories involving the black experience in the military have always resonated with me. Even if you’ve never served, I recommend seeing the film to learn some history you were never taught in school.
Final Grade B+
The 24th is available to stream this Friday August 21st .