While tired of copaganda and military “be all you can be” propaganda, J.D. Dillard’s Devotion manages to get me to overlook this. Based on a true story, the film is about Jesse Brown’s (Jonathan Majors) challenges as the first Black aviator in the U.S. Navy. When his commanding officer assigns him a partner, Tom Hudner (Glen Powell), the pair form a friendship over time as they enter the Korean War. Devotion offers a strong film with Majors’ ranged acting chops with racial discussions that still occur today.
Some Beats In Devotion Are Too Familiar
Some of the beats are formulaic. Two films spring to mind. The first is Glory’s scene with the racist white man cheering for the 54th Regiment after being racist scum earlier in the movie. The other, Tuskegee Airmen, watches a white man, horrified at first that a Black pilot saved his life, go on to request them, given their record for protecting their assigned bomb units. These films make it seem like hard work allows white people to look past race and skin color. And it continues putting the impetus on Black people to make that happen.
Authentic Look At Long-Term Impact
But where Devotion shines is the detailed, smaller racist actions and how go-to innocuous phrases about obedience mean something else when you are not white. Jesse and Tom feel less like friends than the film describes. Especially since Jesse does the labor, many Black people do with white coworkers or friends, educating them on the forms racism takes. In fact, you can separate viewers of Devotion into those who understand the scene when Jesse tries to land the F4U Corsair with a more prominent front (or nose) while ignoring the LSO, and those who do not.
Society asks Black people to put their lives, livelihoods, and justice in white hands. Devotion’s parallels with the world today are sadly familiar and painfully current. Later, when Tom puts in the mission report that Jesse disobeyed his direct order, it becomes another rude awakening for Tom, one he cannot fix. While white officers receive a slap on the wrist, the higher-ups put “insubordination” in Jesse’s fitness report. Because of it, Jesse is ineligible for promotion above his ensign rank.
Punishment Black people face for breaking arbitrary rules is severe when compared to their white counterparts. Devotion, based on a true story, mirrors experiences debated and argued today. They are so common, showing two different U.S. experiences. That is why the phrase “while Black” is now added to reflect how mundane activities have different outcomes when Black.
Performances That Make Your Heart Ache
The score and the casting, particularly Jonathan Majors in the lead role, are immaculate. His acting encompasses the joy of a family man, the calm demeanor many Black people have to show among white people, and the inner pain and anger only shown in the safety of solitude. Glen Powell does well, and between the pair, there is chemistry. But it does not feel like fully-formed friends in Devotion. More like they were in the getting-to-know-you stage of friendship.
After all, you cannot be friends with someone who harms you through ignorance about the differences in your lived experiences. Christina Jackson also shines as Daisy Brown, Jesse’s wife, whenever she is on screen. Their chemistry is sweet and shows a sweeping and lasting love. The score amplified emotions, but pain and anger mixed with moments of triumph and joy were palpable.
Devotion is a strong film, and Jonathan Majors is a stand-out. While I want these stories told, I am tired of stories that focus on the military or cops. Our history has unheard stories because those people were not in the military, a cop, or a slave. We can also have big-budget stories about our writers, musicians, and directors. And we should. The cast, music, and direction in Devotion lift up a story that resonates with great drama, deeper discussions, and nerve-wracking action.