Review by Sean Boelman
Hot off his Academy Award win for BlacKkKlansman (shared with Spike Lee et al.), Kevin Willmott has delivered another searing examination of the criminal justice system, this time in the context of an important historical event that one would have a hard time finding in history books. Affecting but occasionally dogmatic, The 24th is an important watch especially given that recent events have shown these problems to still exist over a hundred years later.
The film tells the story of the soldiers of the Twenty-Fourth United States Infantry Regiment, an all-African-American regiment assigned to Houston, TX, as they clash with local law enforcement, eventually leading up to the Houston Riot of 1917. It’s not an easy watch, particularly when it gets to the harrowingly-written riot scene, but Willmott uses these events in a way that conveys his message in an effective and eye-opening way.
Some of the most impactful moments in the movie explore the idea of loyalty and how that principle breaks down. On one hand, these soldiers have a loyalty to their country as part of their service. But in this case (and many still), this comes in conflict with their loyalty to their military brethren, their fellow men and women, and their race. And it is this identity crisis that makes the story so heartbreaking.
One of the things that Willmott does extremely well in his film (and has been a strength of his in the past) is developing the bond between the characters. Although it would be impossible to give every one of the fifty-odd soldiers a fleshed-out backstory, the way in which Willmott builds that sense of community more than makes up for it.
Trai Byers (who also co-wrote the script with Willmott) gives an excellent performance in his leading role. He captures the conflicted emotions of the character in a way that is subtle and thoroughly nuanced. Also a standout is Mykelti Williamson, whose powerful supporting turn offers layer upon layer.
The only real issue with the script is that the pacing is a tad on the scattershot side. Much of the movie is character-driven, but then a scene will come along that is pretty brutal. While these short bursts of intensity are definitely shocking, many of them tread the line of being emotionally redundant.
There are also some issues with the film on a technical level. The Houston Riot scene in particular is problematic. Even though every moment of the sequence is powerful, the darkness in which it shot obscures a lot of the emotion on the characters’ faces, and as a result, the character arcs aren’t furthered by the scene in the intended way.
The 24th has some flaws, but Kevin Willmott’s script is so strong that its power is undeniable. It’s a shame that this story isn’t more well-known, as these men stood up for what they believed in, something which is relevant now more than ever.
The 24th is now available on VOD.