Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 20, 2020 8:16 am 
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A black rebellion in Houston

Kevin Wilmott's historical drama focuses on a rebellion of 156 soldiers of the Third Battalion of the all-black Twenty-fourth United States Infantry Regiment in Houston, Texas at the end of World War I, a true event called the Camp Logan Mutiny or the Houston Rebellion of 1917. Wilmott, who coscripted Spike Lee's award-winning 2018 BlacKkKlansman, wrote, produced, and directed. This time he has forgotten to include the humor. He shared the writing with "Empire's" Trai Byers, who costars with Bashir Salahuddin and Aja Naomi King. Be prepared for punishment, edification, and a big taste of ugly American racial history. This is a powerful drama, but there's no time for subtlety, and no space allowed for hope. Watching it is a brutal experience, and a picture of what oppressed people can do when they're pushed to the limit and can gain access to arms.

The first half may not quite be the "torture porn" (as Armand White called it) of Steve McQueen's 2013 12 Years a Slave. But it's punishing nonetheless. It focuses on the racial conflicts that William Boston (Tri Byers) encounters and the ugly racial hatred of local white men when the unit is sent as protection to the construction workers as Camp Logan is being constructed three miles outside the city of Houston. Their collective dream is to be sent to fight with the rest of the Army in France. This is all they get. Houston is their France.

The original of Boston was named Baltimore, indicating the character departs from fact. Boston has studied at the Sorbonne, in Paris. He is good looking, educated, and light skinned. Why does he want to be here? The other soldiers mock him for his fancy speech and distance him for his "mulatto" race mixture. Despite appearances, he says his parents were the children of slaves, dark of skin and victims of brutal prejudice. He owes them to serve at the Army's ground level to make a difference and gain respect for his black fellow soldiers. He rebuffs suggestions that he should go to Officer Training School. He thinks an officer he'll just be ignored.

Aside from the constant scenes that contain violence or racial hostility of the threats of them - fights among the men themselves and brutal beatings at the hand of vicious whites - things seem to be going largely nowhere. The friendly white Commanding Officer, Colonel Norton (Thomas Hayden Church), who has been the unit's advocate, gives up when he realizes he will never be able to get the unit transferred to the European Theater, and he finally decides to abandon the men because with them he will never achieve higher rank. The mean, black-hating Major Lockhart (Jim Klock) takes over command from Col. Nolan instead.

When they go into town, the black soldiers are sternly reminded that Jim Crow rules in public places apply to them. (Apparently when stationed in New Mexico, Jim Crow was not imposed on them.) Their desire to be treated simply as soldiers won't be satisfied - not in Houston. Meanwhile a few other characters are highlighted besides Boston, who is promoted to Corporal and gradually gains the affection and respect of the men and the nickname, "Bossie." Boston falls for a pretty and gifted young pianist, Marie (Aja Naomi King). His rival seems to be Private Walker (Mo McRae), who smears her and says she's a whore, but it's just a cruel tease: she's not his and she's a good woman. Big Joe (Bashir Salahuddin), the Third Battalion's First Sergeant, is a veteran of the 24th who has fought valiantly in the Philippines and has come out of his long career with a dark vision of the black man's future anywhere.

While the black soldiers are assigned to protect the camp construction site, they are brutalized by the white police. This prepares the way for what is to come. When two of the black soldiers we've been following, including Cpl. Boston, are reported killed in a clash with white Houston police, the rebellion starts. Then we see it, the killings, the mistakes in the darkness, the First Sergeant's final words, and, in very quick form, the trial, known as the largest murder trial in US history. Boston is still there, and he keeps to his principles, and Col. Norton returns, trying to help. Boston thought what he did was essential to the cause. Was it - or did he overthink - or willfully misguided from the start? I don't know. What is clear is a story whose terrible weight ought to be experienced in a big-screen viewing. Alas, it will not.

The 24th , 101 mins., was to debut at the pandemic-cancelled SXSW. In lieu of theatrical release it comes out on VOD by Vertical Entertainment Aug. 21, 2020. Metascore: 50% (The New York Times' Jeannette Catsoulis called it "stultifyingly earnest.")

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