What to Stream: “The 24th,” a Passionate Historical Drama of Military Honor Amid Jim Crow
There’s an element of quality that inheres in quantity. Last month, I found, by chance, the streaming release of a remarkable film by Kevin Willmott, “Jayhawkers,” from 2014; I had no idea, at the time, that a new film by Willmott, “The 24th,” would soon be arriving in digital release (it’s coming this Friday). Willmott, who directed the scathing mockumentary “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” is a very busy filmmaker: between “Jayhawkers” and now, he also directed a feature called “The Profit” (which hasn’t been released yet) and co-wrote three of Spike Lee’s films—“Chi-Raq,” “BlacKkKlansman,” and “Da 5 Bloods”—while also making three documentaries. His work is centered on one grand idea: a hunger to reclaim Black history and establish it at the very core of American history. In this respect, he and Lee have had a mighty meeting of the minds, though for Willmott, as in “The 24th,” the call of history is even more foregrounded.
“The 24th” is based on the story of the 24th Infantry Regiment and of one battalion in particular, the 3rd, a group of Black soldiers who, when the U.S. entered the First World War, in 1917, were sent to Houston, Texas, to provide security for the Army’s construction of Camp Logan. The battalion is under the leadership of First Sergeant Hayes (Mykelti Williamson), an Army lifer who served under Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War, and 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 the injustices and dangers that they face and the burden that they bear as Black men in the South. What the men of the 24th want, above all, is to prove themselves in battle overseas, rather than merely standing guard on home soil, and Norton vows to use his influence to help them do so.
In the regiment, one recruit stands out: Private William Boston (played by Trai Byers, who co-wrote the script with Willmott). His skin is much lighter than that of the other men (one insults him by calling him a “mulatto”), and his manner and background are different, too. Though born in Atlanta, to parents who were born enslaved, Boston lived for many years in France and earned a degree from the Sorbonne; he’s an inveterate reader who keeps a small library and a chess set in his tent, and the other men say that he talks like a white person. For some in the outfit, he’s an object of admiration; for many, he sparks bewilderment; and for a few—notably, Hayes and another private, Zeke Walker (Mo McRae)—he’s a target of suspicion as someone who, in some essential way, isn’t authentically Black. For Norton, Boston is a potential leader and a potential trailblazer, and the colonel plans to offer him a place in officers’ training school, in Iowa—but Boston wants to make his way among Black soldiers, serving alongside them, proving his worth alongside them, and being of service to the Black community in the quest for justice. They nonetheless consider him a man apart. When Boston—who’s also seen by Norton as a potential peacemaker, able to help keep the Black troops calm despite their justified resentment of their treatment by local whites—is promoted to corporal and named to the military police, Hayes derides him and calls him “Corporal High-Faluttah.”
The soldiers of the 24th, prepared to fight and die for the country, and sharing the military codes of honor, nonetheless find themselves subjected to the mortal terrors and gross indignities of Jim Crow. They’re spat on and urinated on, harassed and threatened by the white laborers whom they’re protecting—and yet, despite the dangers that they face from the townspeople, they’re denied the right to bear arms. Boarding a train that will bring them back to camp, they’re forced to sit in a car’s “colored” section; when it fills up, Walker alone sits among whites, demanding the rights that he’s due as a soldier. The result, predictably, is horrific; both Walker and Boston, who attempts to protect Walker, are eventually (and under trumped-up charges) subjected to brutal punishment. The crux of the plot involves Boston’s similarly daring and dangerous action, as a member of the military police, when a white laborer kills a Black man in cold blood. His deed resonates widely through town, but the white population refuses to accept it. When the men of the 24th get wind of rumors that a white mob is approaching their camp, they resolve to defend themselves, as they confront the practical dangers and moral ambiguities of legitimate violence.
Willmott infuses this grand historical narrative with a vast range of intimate dramatic nuance. He depicts Hayes’s deferential code-switching in the presence of white officers and Boston’s confidential relationship with Norton, and shows the soldiers agonizingly opening up to one another about their memories and legacies of racist violence, in scenes that embody an enormous depth of social history in the characters’ behavior and, seemingly, their thoughts. (Portraying one of these soldiers, Bashir Salahuddin delivers a particularly moving performance.) Throughout, Willmott amplifies political and civic history with the stories that haven’t figured prominently in history textbooks and with the personal experience and the collective agonies that appear in the official record as generalizations and abstractions. “The 24th” is suffused with an air of grief, mourning, fear, and barely suppressed rage; it’s filled with stories of so-called race riots (i.e., wanton rampages by whites against Blacks) and the ambient menace and unredressed violence by which the regime of white supremacy was maintained.
At the same time, “The 24th” builds a foundation of Black culture as a force of self-definition and self-affirmation—of shared joy and collective purpose. At a local dance (which Willmott films exuberantly), Boston courts a young woman named Marie Downing (Aja Naomi King), a gifted musician who, despite her provincial and church-bound training, is well aware of the modern music of Eubie Blake and James Reese Europe. (Her story also provides a glimpse, an unromanticized one, of the double-edged authority of religion in daily life.) Fascinatingly, “The 24th” also borrows several of the tropes of “Jayhawkers”—namely, that of the Black man who uses his esteem within white society to work on behalf of the rights of Black people, and of the sympathetic white figure whose authority can be dissolved at a moment’s notice by higher-ups. (Byers acts in the earlier film, too.) Along with the particulars of Black politics and Black life, Willmott is working out, as if in a philosophical equation, the very terms and pitfalls of progress, the mechanics of justice along with its principles. “The 24th” is a remarkable film; it’s also a remarkable part of a body of work that is an all-too-hidden wonder.