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New Movie "The 24th" mirrors today's Black Lives struggles

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Historical drama

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?

Well, the search for answers to these questions, 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.

Trai Byers, who stars in the film, says the story is as relevant today as it was 103 years ago, as the killing of George Floyd has sparked social unrest not only in America, but in other parts of the world.

"Obviously, you know, we're going through something very visceral that people see, that people feel and having a film like this to remind them of the origins and to not feel like this is a new thing," said the former "Empire" star, who also assisted in writing the script. "Kevin wrote this thing 20 years ago: it was relevant then. We came together and did our thing together three years ago: it was relevant then. We finished, we did the film last year: it was relevant then. Unfortunately, it continues to find its relevance in terms of this is what we're going through because we haven't progressed forward in the way that puts an end to all of this."

THE HOUSTON RIOT

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.

"It's inspired by true events versus based on a true story, so we obviously dramatized some things around it. But tried to keep it real in terms of what Black people deal with, dealt with, in terms of colorism, in terms of what does it look like when a light skinned man dates a dark skinned woman...in terms of patriotism and honor, you know what I mean? That Black people do work hard," said Byers.

"A lot of people, I don't think, know that in that time that Black people were joining—were like joining the army, not being drafted—joining the army for honor and patriotism and legacy ultimately. And as you probably know, were grouped together and sent off to do menial tasks while their white counterparts went off to fight or do whatever, you know, be men, be honorable, be patriotic."

Byers, who briefly attended Prairie View A&M university a historically Black college about an hour outside Houston, had never heard the story before Willmott told him about it. The obvious timeliness of "The 24th" was one reason its makers wanted it to come out this summer, even if movie theaters are largely closed due to the coronavirus.

"I think what makes it so powerful is that you look at this story and it's 1917, it is 103 years old," said Byers. "But it doesn't seem so far away, does it?"

On Friday (August 21), 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.