Reel thoughts: ‘Devotion’ is a tribute to the story of Jesse Brown, America’s first Black Aviator


Illustration by Anna Souter

Based on the true story of Jesse Brown, “Devotion” follows two pilots during the Korean War.

Andrés Buenahora, Reporter

Warning: This article contains spoilers.

“Devotion” tells the story of Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), the first person of color to become a U.S. Naval aviator. 

Blending issues of racial discrimination with the action sequences and fight pilot aesthetic of “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Devotion” is a resonant social justice narrative set during the Korean War. 

Much of the film focuses on the friendship between Brown and fighter pilot Tom Hudner (Glen Powell), although few characters beyond Brown are fully developed.

Powell’s role in “Devotion” is a stark contrast to his “Top Gun: Maverick” counterpart from the get-go, trading brash arrogance for a defined moral conscience as Hudner, Brown’s first and only wingman.

The film calls out Hudner’s misguided perceptions through an exploration of Brown’s own pain. Brown accuses Hudner of offering help when it costs him nothing and looking down on Brown as a subordinate rather than a person. 

Brown faces discrimination as the only Black fighter pilot in his unit, struggling with his mental health amid the hatred and bigotry by which he’s surrounded. He keeps a notebook of his pain — of all the horrible things that have ever been said to him — and repeats them to himself while looking into a mirror. 

This scene is a microcosm of Majors’ brilliance as an artist capable of immersing audiences in the full realm of his emotional range. The devastating mirror sequence quickly turns to screaming, an exercise of agony bubbling to the surface for someone persecuted because of his skin color. 

Yet Brown remains steadfast in his desire to serve his country. Rather than letting himself become a headline centering his story on his race alone, he turns down a group of journalists probing for the attention-inducing answers they crave.

Hudner, on the other hand, is a smiling Ken doll of the skies. While Powell does an admirable job with the given material, his character’s stiff dialogue and nonexistent backstory bog down the film’s retelling of what’s supposed to be a moving true story. 

Erik Messerschmidt, the Oscar-winning cinematographer behind “Mank,” however, orchestrates enough tangible tension during explosive plane sequences to make up for the film’s shallowness for its side characters. 

As for the storyline itself, Director J.D. Dillard threads Brown’s devotion to his family and Hudner’s devotion to Brown with concision. The filmmaker uses the relationship between these two men as a focal point to explore grace and humanity at a time of racial intolerance — a time much like our own. 

Yet more than anything, Dillard evokes themes of growth through the development of the two mens’ relationship. Before the war, Brown invites Hudner into his home, introducing him to his wife Daisy (Christina Jackson) and daughter.

As the film progresses, we see exactly what Brown is fighting for. We see the love he has for his family, and we see relentless devotion to a nation still treating him as less than human. 

Although it takes a while, “Devotion” finally finds its footing when it focuses on the legacies of Hudner and Brown following Brown’s fiery plane crash into a warzone. Here, the film isn’t just flashing similarities to the resolution of “Top Gun: Maverick.” It’s showing devotion to the selfless pilot that Brown was — a forgotten man from America’s “forgotten war.”

A man in a fighter pilot jacket stares forward.
“Devotion” will be released in theaters Nov 23. (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures )

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Twitter: @andresbuena01

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