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‘The 24th’: The stunning story of U.S. soldiers battling U.S. police in Texas

Trai Byers stars in a solid and sometimes stunning fictionalization of the Houston Riot of 1917.

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

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 hard-headed and troubled Walker (Mo McRae), who derides Boston’s lighter skin color and advanced education, and 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 and openly mocks Boston’s stated ambitions to help Black soldiers assimilate into the larger military culture.

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. But Norton is a relatively passive leader who doesn’t condemn the racism of his own second-in-command strongly enough and 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. (Like many of the plot developments in “The 24th,” those two injustices are based on real-life events. 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 Col. Norton explaining his back story or 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.