Writer/director Kevin Willmott has aptly analyzed unjust racial conditions through his deft viewpoint. Working as a co-writer to the great Spike Lee, efforts like Da 5 Bloods and BlacKKKlansman have extracted a searing portrait that highlights vital elements of black livelihood while portraying complex character dynamics. Willmot’s latest project The 24th, which he directed and co-wrote with star Trai Byers, struggles to unearth a substantive experience from its relevant slice of history.
Set amidst the Houston riot of 1917, The 24th follows Boston (Byers), a promising army recruit who ignores his pathway to command in favor of making a daily impact on his peers. While training in Texas during WWI, the black army regiment deals with the cruel conditions of the Jim Crow south, displaying the gradual build towards the units’ cathartic revolt.
Willmott’s exploration of the Houston Riot’s ooze with pertinent observations on systematic racism. Along with unearthing a seldomly told chapter of American history, Willmott and Byers’ script confronts the conditions of the regiment’s demonstrative actions, empathetically portraying how years of prejudicial behaviors led to an emotional breaking point. It also helps that Byers’ onscreen portrayal of Boston injects the character with gravitas and confliction, soundly exploring the character’s complex sentiments towards patriotism and the gapping racial divide. Mykelti Williamson, Bashir Salahuddin, and Aja Naomi King round out a strong supporting cast, with King displaying a natural onscreen charisma as Boston’s love interest.
The 24th is clearly crafted with noble intentions, yet its simplistic design severely undercuts the bounty of timeless ruminations. The script aims to tell its story through Boston’s idealistic mindset, showing the character’s uphill battle as he tries to evolve the black image in a prejudicial environment (his regiment is forced to show pristine kindness to their superiors despite the circumstances). The flawed perceptions and the imbalanced rules are exceedingly relevant to our world today, a connection that the script befuddlingly doesn’t take advantage of. Wilmott and Byers’ straddle their characters with thinly-conceived archetypes, with clumsily drawn dialogue over-explaining every conflict with a severe lack of grace. I appreciate the vital platform the duo gives to these soldiers’ trials and tribulations, but it’s that boundless potential that makes the rigid delivery so frustrating.
Unlike Spike Lee, his verbose writing partner who enhances every project with a lively stylistic identity, Willmott struggles to infuse much urgency into his direction. The 24th has a stale, made-for-TV visual style that it can never quite shake, rarely creating a lived-in world for audiences to be entrenched into. It all feels relatively flat, resting on the laurels of biopic conventions rather than conveying the urgency of its weighty material.
The 24th’s relevant slice of history deserves better than the film’s stale History Channel treatment.
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