In 1917, 64 members of the all-Black 24th Infantry Regiment were put on trial for the murder of 17 people. The soldiers had taken part in what is now called the Camp Logan Mutiny.
While stationed in Houston, the 24th was preparing to fight abroad during World War I. After a series of violent encounters with local police, in which members of the 24th were beaten and jailed, the regiment marched on Houston in protest. They were met by police and armed civilians and a skirmish ensued. After the dust settled, many of the soldiers were sentenced to death, while others were given life in prison.
After seeing an old photograph of the courtroom proceedings, director and screenwriter Kevin Willmott (BlacKkKlansman, Da 5 Bloods) decided to tell the soldiers’ story in his new film, The 24th.
Speaking with SF Weekly by phone, he said he had to know the story behind it. “Being a student of history,” he says he couldn’t help but wonder: “Why didn’t somebody tell me about this?”
The answer to his question is problematic, to say the least. In school, history lessons that focus on African Americans often begin with slavery and then jump forward in time, with short detours through the Reconstruction Era, before moving on to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Willmott’s film, like Damon Lindelof’s HBO series Watchmen, fills in crucial omissions in the timeline that follows the end of the Civil War.
“During that violent period from 1880-1930, the model of the Ku Kux Klan was worse than slavery,” Willmott says.
The director accounts for that violence by explaining that slaves were worth a lot of money, “as much as a Lexus car is today.”
“They [slave owners] murdered or tortured the slaves they were worried would cause problems, disorder, or rebellions,” he says. “After slavery, African Americans weren’t worth anything, and so you had many genocidal incidents.”
Thinking back on one of his own experiences in junior high school, Willmott once found a book (The Black West) about these “horrific incidents” and showed it to some of his friends.
“The teacher saw it and said, ‘Put that away,’” he recalls. “That was the attitude toward it, because they were worried the book would cause problems, so they didn’t teach it to anybody.” This “buried history” stays out of classrooms, he believes, because educators don’t know how to teach these profoundly disturbing examples of longstanding, systemic racism in America.
Whereas Watchmen leads the series off with the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, The 24th recounts the events leading up to and then climaxing with the mutiny. Willmott carefully imagines the psyche of a soldier named Boston. Played by Trai Byers, who also co-wrote the screenplay, Boston is the central figure in the drama — based on a beloved member of the 24th named Corporal Baltimore. Although the screenwriters didn’t have access to any of the corporal’s personal papers, Willmott and Byers created an entire backstory for Boston.
“When the police brutalized Baltimore, that was what ignited the riot,” Willmott says. “Boston’s whole story and point of view really comes from making him part of what W.E.B. Du Bois would call ‘The Talented Tenth.’ He’s one of those guys, like Du Bois himself, who came from a little affluence, and was able to get an education.”
Typically, those men received an education outside of the United States. “Those 10 percent were supposed to go back to help the 90 percent of African Americans who were still stuck in poverty and discrimination,” the director adds.
That’s what Boston’s trying to do when he arrives in Houston to join the 24th. The character embodies Du Bois’ support of the war effort, or what he called “closing ranks.”
“Du Bois wanted African Americans to fight in World War I with the hope that our participation would then lead to our civil rights, and a sense of true freedom,” Willmott says. The 24th demonstrates the challenges of even establishing any secure footing or a shared common ground — especially when facing a hostile police force like the one Boston encounters in Houston.
“It’s important to remember that almost every racial riot in American history is connected to police,” Willmott says. “Almost every one. This has been going on for a very, very, very long time, which is what our movie proves.” The director thinks that it’s amazing that we, as a nation, haven’t figured this out. “We have not figured out that one bad policeman in 1917 could destroy a city, and rock a nation, and we just lived through that again this year.”
A hundred years later, Willmott believes that George Floyd’s murder has changed America in one sense. “People never believed us when we told them that police murder us. Even when there was footage, people didn’t really believe it,” he says. “But to see a public lynching, like George Floyd’s, I think people finally get it now. People finally know that these things occur on a regular basis, and that’s a shocking, horrible thing to have to admit. But it’s just simply true.”
Willmott accounts for Boston’s desire to serve his country through the lens of Du Bois’ “double consciousness” conflict, of being both Black and an American. “Du Bois said, this is the defining issue of the 20th century: How can you love your country when it doesn’t love you back? But sacrifice is inherent to the military and to war,” Willmott says.
“Black people have tried to find a way to balance this love of country with the survival of self,” the director says. In Boston’s case, the character extends Du Bois’ question to: How can I be a soldier and serve an army in a nation that doesn’t want or respect me?
Willmott concludes, “Hope comes in for me if we continue to acknowledge the past and fight and address these problems, then things can get better. If we let it run us off, as it usually does, it’s going to continue.”
The 24th is now widely available for streaming.