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Trai Byers

“THE 24th” My rating: B+ (Opens Aug. 21 at the Screenland Armour and on streaming services)

101 minutes | No MPAA rating:

An overlooked landmark in both black history and military history gets a compassionate/angry examination in “The 24th,” the latest from KC-area filmmaker Kevin Willmott.

The subject is the 1917 “riot” of black soldiers in Houston TX. After months of abuse from  both white citizens and the local police department and fearing they were about to be attacked by a white mob, the soldiers went on a late-night killing spree.  By the time the sun rose 11 civilians, five police officers and four soldiers were dead.

The upshot was the largest murder trial in American history, with 156 soldiers of the Third Battalion of the all-black 24th Infantry facing homicide and mutiny charges.

In capable hands of the Oscar-winning Willmott (“C.S.A.,” “Jayhawkers,” “Destination Planet Negro”…as well as the screenplays for recent Spike Lee efforts) the story of the 24th becomes an intimate epic, filled with suppressed fury and perfectly balancing personal moments against the sweep (one almost wants to say inevitable sweep) of history.

Astoundingly, this is accomplished on a bargain basement budget, with filming limited to less than three weeks.

Yet the movie never looks cheap; neither are its sentiments.

We meet the members of the 24th as they show up to provide security for the building of Camp Logan outside Houston.  There’s a war in Europe, and the men are anxious to prove their worth on the battlefield; the Army, though, cannot see them as anything but uniformed ditch diggers and night watchmen.

Our protagonist is William Boston (Trai Byers, co-writer of the screenplay with Willmott), who as a graduate of the Sorbonne is better educated than any of the white officers calling the shots. This is not lost on the regiment’s commanding officer, Col. Norton (Thomas Haden Church), who unsuccessfully urges Boston to sign up for officer training in Des Moines.

Boston is an idealist out to prove that colored soldiers are second to none; alas, his intellectual interests (in his spare time he reads!) and his light complexion make him suspect, especially to the  perennially angry Pvt. Walker (Mo McRae).

And then there’s Sgt. Hayes (Mykelti Williamson), the scarred black NCO who boasts of charging up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt but has spent the last 20 years in an alcoholic funk  kowtowing to a system that respects none of his sacrifice.  He cannot even look a white officer in the eye; occasionally he takes out his frustrations on his men.

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