History of police brutality informs new Willmott film

Published: Aug. 22, 2020 at 4:03 PM CDT
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LAWRENCE, Kan. (WIBW) - The history of police brutality is the basis for Kevin Willmott’s new film, “The 24th.”

The University of Kansas says over two decades ago Kevin Willmott began writing a screenplay about the Houston race riot of 1917, where Black soldiers rose up against racist cops.

KU says Willmott could not have known “The 24th” would premier during a summer of turbulent protests over police brutality, but he knew it would be relevant whenever it came out.

“One bad police officer could destroy a city then, and you can destroy a city like that today,” said the University of Kansas professor of film & media studies and Oscar-winning “BlacKkKlansman” screenwriter. “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.”

According to the University, “The 24th” is Willmott’s second film about Black soldiers which will premiere this summer. It says “Da Five Bloods,” which is set in Vietnam and co-written by Willmott with director Spike Lee, premiered on June 12 on Netflix. It says Willmott directed, cowrote and coproduced “The 24th,” which premieres on-demand via Vertical Entertainment.

Willmott says he grew up in Junction City, near Fort Riley, and sees commonalities between the two films’ groups of soldiers.

“I think the Buffalo Soldiers, the Black soldiers that sacrificed in all of these campaigns, believed that somehow their sacrifice was going to make things better,” he said. “They truly believed in the hope of tomorrow. And one of the major courageous elements of their legacy has been that their whole service was about hope for the future.”

Willmott says “The 24th” deals with the lead up to the 1917 riots and its aftermath included the largest murder trial in American history, a court-martial of 64 members of the 24th infantry Division accused of taking part in the uprising that led to the death of 21 people.

KU says today no one disputes that Houston police officers’ brutality spurred the violence. It says many songs have been written about the event but few books and movies have been written.

“The Leadbelly song ‘Midnight Special’ has a line in it that refers to the police in Houston,” Willmott noted, quoting, “‘If you ever go to Houston, you better walk right. You better not gamble, and you better not fight.’ Houston was known as a brutal police force.”

Willmott says almost 30 years ago, “I stumbled across this photograph of the trial. There’s only one photograph of the trial. And that trial of 64 guys all together just blew my mind. The caption said, ‘The largest murder trial in American history.’ So I had to look and see what the story was there. There was one book on it. There’s been a lot more in the last few years about it. I wrote a script that, at that time, was called ‘Colored Men,’ and that script would get me jobs, but I couldn’t find a way to get that movie made.”

Willmott says he though Trai Byers would be a good lead. The school says Byers is a Kansas City native and University of Kansas graduate who portrayed the role of jazz music student and Wilt Chamberlain’s friend, Nathan Davis.

Willmott says the 18-day shooting schedule in North Carolina required low budget movie making tricks.

According to the school, the history buff is happy with the finished film.

“We fictionalized some things about the main character and his love relationship, and we create stories within the group of men,” Willmott said. “But the event itself, I think we’re very accurate to what happened and how it happened and those things that really matter.”

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