by George Wolf
Take at look at some recent writing credits for Kevin Willmott: Da 5 Bloods, Black KkKlansman (which won him a deserved Oscar), Chi-Raq. Impressive. Go back to 2004, and you’ll find The Confederate States of America, which he also directed.
Without question, Willmott speaks eloquently and provocatively on the history of being Black in America. He’s back behind the camera for The 24th, a bold and clear-eyed take on the 1917 mutiny of the all-Black 24th U.S. Army infantry regiment after harassment from the Houston police department.
Willmott, co-writing with first time screenwriter Trai Byers, again shows an uncanny instinct for making history crackle with the urgency of a breaking news bulletin. Humanizing the conflict through the fictional Pvt. William Boston (Byers, also taking lead acting duties), the film builds from a slightly impatient first act into a final third full of resonant rage and tremendous emotional power.
Pvt. Boston’s education abroad and dignified air draw the ire of both his fellow soldiers and his white commanding officers, save for the thoughtful Col. Norton (Thomas Haden Church, playing impressively against type). Both Boston and Norton want the 24th to be the first Black regiment sent to the Normandy front lines, and the Col. recommends Boston for officer training.
Aspiring to lead by the example of valuing service over ambition, Boston resists the promotion, laying down the first marker in a character arc of weighty heartbreak, resignation and sacrifice.
The Jim Crow laws of Texas stop at nothing to oppress and brutalize the members of the 24th, even the private MP unit formed expressly to protect them.
As Boston prepares to give his local sweetheart (Aja Naomi King) a promise ring, the night of August 23rd, 1917 cascades into violence, leaving policemen, civilians and soldiers dead in the Houston streets.
The aftermath leaves Boston with a soul shaking choice, one made easier by an awakened and defiant resolve.
He still aspires to be an inspiration, but for a completely different reason. And it is this journey – made so deeply intimate by Byers and a superb Mykelti Williamson as Boston’s frequent adversary Sgt. Hayes – that carries the film’s early 1900s setting into the streets of today’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Making that leap with us, and not for us, is no easy trick, but The 24th is more proof of risk and reward. The ugliest corners of the mirror can be valuable teachers, and we need Willmott’s voice – as both a writer and a filmmaker – to keep us looking.