Muhammad Ali famously refused to fight for his country, justifying himself with the oft-quoted quip, “No Viet Cong ever called me n—–.” That’s one-half of American history, and an essential one. “Devotion” tells the other, presenting the story of a Black pilot so determined to defend — and die for, if need be — the United States that he was willing to endure institutional bigotry to become the Jackie Robinson of the skies: Jesse Brown, the first aviator of color to complete the Navy’s basic training program.
A square but satisfying social justice drama set against the backdrop of the Korean War, “Devotion” impressed on the biggest screen possible at the Toronto Film Festival two months before its Nov. 23 theatrical release. Featuring elements of both “Green Book” and “Red Tails,” the film is not just a stirring case of Black excellence; it also celebrates the one white officer who had Brown’s back, Tom Hudner, treating the bond these two men formed as something special unto itself. Director JD Dillard dazzles with see-it-in-Imax airborne sequences, but the meat of the film focuses on the friendship between Brown (Jonathan Majors) and his white wingman, played by Glen Powell, the “Hidden Figures” actor who most recently appeared in “Top Gun: Maverick.”
In that inclusive-minded blockbuster, it’s seemingly no big deal that many of the young pilots assembled for the movie’s trick-flying mission are women and people of color — the implication being that the battle for equal treatment in the U.S. armed services has long since been fought and won. In “Devotion,” that struggle is still actively underway. Brown keeps a book in which he’s written every insult and epithet that’s ever been thrown at him. Most days, as a brutal sort of motivational exercise, he stares at himself in the mirror and screams them back at the face he sees there — directly into the camera at one point. This is his armor, the way he toughens himself up for whatever fresh disrespect the other pilots might hurl at him.
“Devotion” takes place in 1950, but that mirror scene will undoubtedly resonate with contemporary audiences as well. Today, we talk of “microaggressions,” which is one way such barbs still manifest themselves. Before the civil rights movement, however, at a time when segregation was widely practiced in the United States, Brown would have taken such bigotry full force. Men like Hudner were the exception: someone decent enough to offer Brown a lift when his car breaks down, or to step in and throw the first punch when less accepting soldiers try to provoke a brawl.
Plenty of Black men had served in the U.S. military before Brown, though national policy kept them separated from white soldiers, and Jim Crow rules still applied. “Ever think you’d be in a squadron with a colored aviator?” asks one of the other pilots (apart from Joe Jonas, the vaguely defined white supporting characters all sort of blur together). Hudner doesn’t share their disgust with the new situation. Mostly, he’s just itching for action. Hudner enlisted when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but the war ended a week before he graduated, which means he missed the “Big Show” (pilot-speak for the air fights of WWII). Although much of “Devotion” is presented through Hudner’s eyes, Dillard breaks from that perspective occasionally to share Brown’s experience, and every time he does, the movie becomes more interesting: the scene where Brown encounters Elizabeth Taylor on the beach at Cannes, for example, or an important interaction with a lower-ranking Black sailor, who presents him with a symbol of the men’s admiration.
Integration was a difficult process across American society, as those indoctrinated by notions of their own superiority tried to hold on to their power as long as possible. Revisiting these dynamics on-screen is invariably ugly and potentially triggering for many, which is one reason why storytellers prefer to focus on progressive cases such as Hudner, who demonstrates no overt racism when he meets Brown at Rhode Island’s Quonset Point base.
Though they’re both gifted pilots, Brown has trouble adjusting to the fighter plane the Navy introduced in 1950, the Vought F4U Corsair, whose bulky engine blocked visibility. That late-in-the-game change adds a level of suspense to the film’s airborne sequences — a few of which, like the early lighthouse run, exist simply to give audiences a taste of that same exhilaration these men experienced in the cockpit. While flying is a thrill, landing aboard an aircraft carrier can be downright nerve-racking. Not everyone survives this test.
After bonding in the skies, Brown invites Hudner over and introduces the white man to his wife (Christina Jackson) and child — “to see what a man’s fighting for,” as Hudner puts it. Despite this gesture, it takes nearly the entire film for Brown to accept his partner. Why? Hudner may have been ahead of his peers, but so much of his support comes easy — that is, at no personal risk. Brown makes that clear after he’s cited for disobeying a direct order in the film’s most electrifying sequence, a daredevil dogfight immediately followed by the bombing of a Korean bridge.
This is where Dillard’s decision to tell the story primarily through Hudner’s eyes pays off: Audiences have seen much of the unfair treatment facing Brown before, whether in life or other movies, but there are still a few lessons for Hudner to learn about being an effective ally. The movie’s big finale echoes “Top Gun: Maverick” in some ways, as Hudner puts his life on the line to save his friend. Brown has already proven his devotion; through Hudner’s actions, the country is able to show this pioneering Black aviator that same respect.