NEW YORK – The sole photograph related to the Houston Riot of 1917 shows 64 Black soldiers sitting with arms folded and legs crossed behind a rope. Their sheer number, in a courtroom otherwise populated by white men, suggests they’re part of the audience but they’re not. They’re the defendants in what’s considered the largest murder trial in American history.
When the writer-director Kevin Willmott first came upon the photo 30 years ago, he was mystified by it. What was the story behind it? And how had he never heard of the Houston Riot before?
That led, ultimately, to “The 24th, ” Willmott’s dramatization of one of the bloodiest and most tragic chapters in the dark history of Jim Crow America.
Shortly after the U.S. entered World War I, 156 soldiers in an all-Black regiment, the 24th, were stationed near Houston. After beatings and harassment by locals and police officers -- including the dragging of a Black woman from her home that led to an attack and the arrest of a Black soldier -- the infantrymen mutinied and marched on Houston. Some 21 died in the violence including 11 civilians. After the trial, 19 of the soldiers were hung; 41 were sentenced to life imprisonment.
In a time of reckoning for police brutality, “The 24th” reverberates with injustices past and present. By stretching back more than 100 years, it vividly captures an early example of unrest unleashed by racist policing. Such incidents have typically gone unmentioned in history books. Willmott calls it “a hidden history.”
“Black people have been complaining, shouting, screaming, crying about police abuse for a long, long, long time,” Willmott said in a recent interview. “The movie is really an indictment for how long this problem has existed in the country.”
“The 24th” had originally been slated to premiere in March at SXSW before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the festival. But it’s one of the few films that have managed to find a path forward nevertheless. On Friday, Vertical Entertainment will release it on-demand and in digital rental, two days before the anniversary of the Houston Riot, also called the Camp Logan Mutiny.
Willmott is best known as Spike Lee’s recent co-writer. He helped pen “Chi-Raq,” “BlacKkKlansman” and their recent Netflix release, “Da 5 Bloods.” He also teaches film at the University of Kansas; the star and co-writer of “The 24th,” Trai Byers (“Empire”), was once Willmott’s screenwriting student.