William Boston (Trai Byers) asks a piano player, Marie (Aja Naomi King), for a dance. This scene, and dances in particular, reminds me of my readings in genre class about how Westerns always have dances to relieve tension. This isn’t a Western but the rules are just the same. And just like those Westerns, the dance is a microcosm of the world that these characters are trying to escape from. In Boston and Marie’s case, it’s the racism and sexism pulling them down. This drama is particularly about Boston’s struggles as a light skinned man during WWI America.
As an aside, before Boston asks asks Marie for that dance, one Black officer compares Boston to David Fagen, a Black soldier who defected to the Philippine Army during the Philippine American War. Personal interests make me wish for that drama to exist, but I’m fine with this one existing for now. It’s still a reminder that Black people are constant victims of violence before, during, and after WWI. Boston can’t escape that reality. In one scene he sees a headline telling him about riots killing Black people through the 1910s.
A well-meaning ally, Col. Norton (Thomas Haden Church), promotes him to become a corporal to protect the all-Black 24th Regiment near Houston. But he’s mostly protecting them from white citizens who beat up the members of the regiment. His work has some success. He’s able to arrest a white man who killed a Black coworker, but that just leads to racial tensions. The white officers resent Boston and the men in his regiment. Despite that, Boston and Norton do their best to run and protect the titular 24th.
A lot of this drama, then, play out the didactic conversations between the two men. And the diplomatic working relationship, then, has more complications when the army transfers Norton away from Houston. Norton advises him to go to officers’ school instead of staying in Houston where his rank doesn’t matter. It takes Boston a while to take that advise, believing that change starts from the bottom. He also joined the 24th to reconnect with his roots. Thing is, audiences might misinterpret his motives as self-sabotage.
The rest of the drama, however, show atrocities like the one Boston tries to stop. Most of those scenes also show the reluctance and toothless nature of white allies who go by the book instead of helping the people they’re supposedly allying themselves with. Either way, the Black regiment’s members decided that they only way is violence, their violent act leading to the Houston Riot of 1917. Starting that riot is what divides the second act an the third.
The bad lighting in these scenes, unfortunately, hinders any emotion it could have garnered from showing the nighttime mutiny. Bad lighting aside, the mutiny depicting the death of white soldiers, can give audiences a mixture of feelings, depending on the demographic of that audience. On the one hand, watching Black men take their revenge is exciting. That also means killing the guilty and those who are guilty by association. On the other hand, we have people administering lethal justice in their own hands. This drama handles that moral ambiguity well.
And although the script isn’t the best as fleshing out Boston’s motivations, it captures the pressures of being a model minority, a pressure that many feel today. I watched this film the day after meeting a friend of mine who told me about his experiences of living as a Black man in Canada. His stories are not mine to tell, and he can tell those stories when he feels comfortable in doing so. I do have my own stories, of a coworker in my day job who doesn’t want to see an ‘ugly’ woman in his $10 bills. Those stories show that the people who think that anti-Black racism or white supremacy stopped happening after 1917 are wrong.
Watch The 24th on VOD platforms today.
- Rated: NR
- Genre: Drama, History
- Release Date: 8/22/2020
- Directed by: Kevin Willmott
- Starring: Aja Naomi King, Thomas Haden Church, Trai Byers
- Produced by: Alexandra Milchan, Kevin Willmott, Trai Byers
- Written by: Kevin Willmott, Trai Byers
- Studio: EMJAG Productions
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