Kansas filmmaker Kevin Willmott’s latest movie feels like a warning

Kansas City, Kansas, native Trai Byers stars in Kevin Willmott's "The 24th." Byers, who also starred on "Empire," took a screenwriting class with Willmott at the University of Kansas and co-wrote "The 24th."

While we spent the last three days waiting for updates from the too-surreal-for-reality-TV show in Washington, it was as good a time as any to contemplate science fiction and catch up on the newest movie from one of Kansas’ favorite sons, Kevin Willmott.

It was fittingly grim.

Released in August and robbed by the pandemic of a wide theatrical release, “The 24th” is billed as “inspired by true events.” Unlike the ending of “BlacKKKlansman,” for which Willmott won his Oscar, “The 24th” doesn’t need a collage of current news footage to feel as if it’s about today.

Text in the sky above cornfields provides the setup: “In the summer of 1917, white mobs attacked African American communities in East St. Louis, Illinois, and Chester, Pennsylvania, with horrific acts of racial violence.” (This was four years before, but mighty similar to, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which a lot of us didn’t fully comprehend until last year’s “Watchmen” on HBO).

With racial tensions running high, Willmott’s opening explains, the all-Black 24th Infantry Division has been sent to guard the construction of Camp Logan, three miles outside of Houston. There, soldiers will be trained to fight overseas in World War I. So far, only white units have been selected to go to France.

 

Anyone with the internet can figure out what happened, and there are standard movie reviews elsewhere. (Also, this is a good time for full disclosure: I’m working with Willmott on a whole different story.)

Let’s just say everything goes to hell.

The most obvious parallel between the events of a century ago and events of this summer is that the Houston police department is notoriously brutal toward these Black soldiers.

“One bad police officer could destroy a city then, and you can destroy a city like that today,” Willmott told KU Today. “Years later, we’re still dealing with the results of a bad police force that accepts racist policing — and it’s one guy that creates the incident. Like the George Floyd thing, it’s that one guy that makes the other three guys go along with it.”

But the 24th Infantry soldiers fought back, deploying their training and marksmanship skills to more than avenge the brutality that police committed against them.

In regular movies, you cheer when the bad guy finally gets what’s coming to him. In this movie, you end up unable to cheer for anyone. The good guys end up acting worse than the bad guys — or maybe they act exactly like the bad guys, it’s just that we’re used to seeing Black soldiers transcend their oppression like the martyred heroes in “Glory.”

In the end, with everyone in some variation of uniform, some of the mutineers didn’t even know whether they were shooting at their allies or their enemies.

You hate to see the good guys, these Black soldiers who only want to serve their country, who deserve the same respect afforded to other members of the military, who demand the dignity of being recognized as men instead of boys, acting just like the murderous white racists.

Missing from this film are the sparks of humor that have made it so fun to watch Willmott’s other critiques of unending American racism, but there’s another reason to pay attention to what he’s doing with “The 24th.”

I wasn’t able to catch Willmott over the last couple of days to ask him about this, and maybe that’s for the best because maybe he’d tell me I was wrong, but what I see in “The 24th” is a warning about the ultimate danger in our current way of framing all of America’s problems in terms of “both sides.”

Rarely are there two morally equal sides to any human conflict. Usually there are many. Sometimes there’s just one.

In “The 24th,” one side, continually pressed farther under the jackbooted foot of the other, resorts to its oppressor’s tactics. All along, however, other voices within each group question the direction of leaders and show discomfort with what their own side is doing. The Black soldiers don’t all agree on the best way to counter, or just survive, the assaults of the white racists. One violent white racist says something to the effect of “this ain’t right,” but still follows orders from the more violent white racist.

Forced to commit the same sins, an older, wiser Black soldier tells the once-promising lead character: “Ain’t nobody here innocent, soldier. Not them, not us. Nobody.”

Willmott’s movie feels like an urgent message about human nature.