(director/writer: Kevin Willmott; screenwriter: Trai Byers; cinematographer: Brett Pawlak; editor: Mollie Goldstein; music: Alex Heffes; cast: Trai Byers (Boston), Bashir Salahuddin (Big Joe), Aja Naomi King (Marie), Mo McRae (Walker), Tosin Morohunfola (Franklin), Mykelti Williamson (Sgt. Hayes), Thomas Haden Church (Col. Norton), Lorenzo Yearby (Lucky); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jordan Fudge/Alexandra Milchan/Kevin Willmot/Trai Byers; Vertical Entertainment; 2020)
“Mixes fact with fiction to tell this powerful Jim Crow-era tale set during World War I.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The notable war drama is told as a provocative history lesson on racism. It tells us of the all-black Twenty-Fourth United States Infantry Regiment and their involvement in the Houston Riot of 1917. The black writer-director Kevin Willmott (“The Profit”/”C.S.A: Confederate States Of America”) mixes fact with fiction to tell this powerful Jim Crow-era tale set during World War I.
At the beginning of the First World War, the black battalion was sent just outside Houston, Texas, to provide security for the Army’s construction of Camp Logan. The unit is under the leadership of First Sergeant Hayes (Mykelti Williamson), an Army lifer who served under Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War. The entire regiment is under the command of a white officer, Colonel Charles Norton (Thomas Haden Church), who is both deeply devoted to the troops and well aware of of the pressures faced by blacks in the South. The 24th wanted to prove themselves in battle overseas and were not thrilled doing guard duty in the South, especially as they ran into some horrible incidents–such as a white laborer killing a black soldier and of the unit being constantly taunted and spit upon by the ugly white protesting crowd.
It also follows how the black soldiers act together and build an identity despite differences over class and education. One soldier, a light-skinned Negro, Private William Boston (Trai Byers, co-wrote the script with Willmott) receives grief from the others because he looks like a mulatto and earned a degree from the Sorbonne in Paris. Though a few admire him, Sgt. Hayes and the private, Zeke Walker (Mo McRae), find him suspicious and not a real black man. The Colonel sees him as a potential leader and promotes him to corporal.
Marie (Aja Naomi King), a talented musician, is a local girl Boston chases after. Their relationship never seems convincing, and it only adds a draining subplot to the main story.
What the film is good at is showing Boston’s troubled relationship with the veteran black sergeant and his complex one with the white colonel.
The gist of the film shows how the racist white workers in town mistreat the black battalion, who despite the dangerous assignment are not allowed to have weapons. When the battalion has enough abuse and fights back, they now have arms and fire on the taunting locals and the racist police officers. There were 11 civilians, five policeman and four regular Army personnel dead. The trial ruled that 58 out of the 63 black soldiers were guilty, and 19 of them were executed. Forget about mounting a self-defense!
This is a strong presentation of how racially divided the country was and still is. But also tells how far the country has come from the Houston incident. It’s especially relevant today with the rise of BLM protests and the ongoing tension in the air over racial injustice. It also is released in virtual cinema at a time when the country has an openly bigoted president, who is threatening the country’s democracy by unethically trying to tear down the country’s institutions, flaunt the constitution and pit whites against blacks.
REVIEWED ON 8/26/2020 GRADE: B+