After a summer of protests, The 24th — a film depicting the Houston race riot of 1917 — will help give context to the outrage that inspired people across the country to brave the coronavirus and protest on the streets to challenge racist practices and murders by the police. Although this is certainly not a feel-good movie, it delves into important issues that the United States is still grappling with 100 years later: the harsh reality of racism and police brutality ingrained in the United States’ history.
Set in 1917, The 24th tells the true story of the United States Army’s segregated all-Black 24th Infantry Regiment: Black citizens who were willing to sacrifice their lives to fight for their country during World War I. Due to discriminatory practices, instead of going to France like their white comrades, the Black soldiers were sent to Houston, Texas. The soldiers enlisted to fight the enemy abroad, but ironically, they were forced to fight their fellow citizens, who denied the soldiers’ humanity at home. The Black soldiers believed that they’d be treated as equals if they showed their patriotism, but instead they were faced with violent and soul crushing racism. The locals would demean the soldiers, spitting and even peeing on them, and would grow outraged if anyone dared to question their behavior. This is an incendiary mix: white people who want to “keep Black people in their place,”expecting them to be subservient, and Black soldiers with weapons and training, who are trying to prove themselves worthy of equal treatment.
The 24th follows main character Corporal William Boston as he grapples with the juxtaposition of these realities. Boston has the unique honor of being the first Black person to arrest a white person for the murder of a Black individual. When Boston arrives at the police station with the murderer in his custody and the police chief orders, “Arrest him,” the other officer tries to handcuff Boston, and is stupefied when he realizes he is being told to arrest the white murderer instead. As a viewer who has spent the film connecting with William Boston, it is infuriating to watch him and other Black characters be so blatantly disrespected because of their race. The film highlights the absurdity of a justice system in which police would punish the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators, allowing viewers in the 21st century to put some context into the clear bias and violent tendencies of police today.
When Boston is informed that his courageous act didn’t even make a difference, because the judge ultimately dropped all charges against the murderer, the connection to the present day is striking. Day after day we see the streets filled with people who are outraged about the treatment of African Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by the police. Time and time again we see the murderers of Black Americans face no accountability, similar to the white man Boston arrests. The people who devalue Black lives and are responsible for heinous acts of violence against Black people are still escaping punishment today, over 100 years later.
The 24th also explores identity, not only in how a person is seen by others, but also how they see themselves. Corporal William Boston graduated from the Sorbonne, a prestigious university in Paris, and can speak French fluently. He is sophisticated and eloquent, yet he is not accepted by his fellow soldiers. He is accused of not being Black enough and of being white at heart. When his commanding officer recommends him for officer training, he refuses because he does not want to betray his race. He is rejected by his own community, but he is not accepted by white people either — they are intimidated and infuriated by his education, refined manner of speaking, and the way he advocates for Black rights. This educated Black man threatens the white privilege of people who feel that no matter how low they are in the social hierarchy, whether poor, uneducated, or illiterate, they are still better than a Black person. Even though the film focuses on the Black soldiers, it also gives depth to the white villains of the story by revealing their perspective. For example, in a rant about Black people getting an education and going to college, one white police officer says, “If you aren’t as good as a n***er, you as good as dead.” His hostility stems from his fear that his status or superiority, based solely on his skin tone, will be lost.
Although this is an intense movie to watch, it is very important for people to witness the injustices that Black Americans have endured for centuries. Corporal William Boston inspires us, along with his soldiers, to combat racial injustices and to fight for African Americans to be treated as human beings in all contexts.