‘Devotion’ Review: JD Dillard Brings ‘Top Gun’ Mojo to Historic Account of a Barrier-Breaking Black Pilot (2024)

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.”

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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.

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“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 co*ckpit. 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.

‘Devotion’ Review: JD Dillard Brings ‘Top Gun’ Mojo to Historic Account of a Barrier-Breaking Black Pilot (2024)


What is the message of Devotion movie? ›

Positive Messages

Not all heroes live to tell their stories. Black pioneers in military history deserve acknowledgement for the sacrifices they made and the racism they had to deal with on a regular basis.

What are critics saying about the movie Devotion? ›

Fresh score. Devotion may not break the mould for war or aviation films. Still, it is a well-directed and entertaining film that is perhaps a tad too long but elevated by superb performances from Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell.

What is the movie Devotion all about? ›

Who played the black pilot in Devotion? ›

In Sony's Devotion, Jonathan Majors stars as Jesse Brown, the first Black aviator to complete the Navy's basic training program.

What is the idea of Devotion? ›

Bhakti means devotion. Just as some people are inspired to seek wisdom, others are more naturally disposed to devotion as a spiritual path. The word bhakti, from a root meaning “to share,” conveys the sense of “sharing” inherent in the love of God.

What is the point of Devotion? ›

And so they inspire and motivate. Devotions help us worship God with enthusiasm and love. Daily devotions reach into places of encouragement, inspiration, motivation, worship, enthusiasm, and love.

Is Devotion related to top gun? ›

For "Top Gun: Maverick" and "Devotion," both of which feature actor Glen Powell, such comparisons are all but inevitable. There are, of course, a few differences between the films: While "Maverick" is the follow-up to a great (and fictional) Tom Cruise film, "Devotion" depicts the true story of naval aviators Lt.

Is Devotion historically accurate? ›

Devotion is based on the true story of the U.S. Navy's first Black pilot, Jesse Brown, and his wingman, Tom Hudner. The film closely follows their experiences during the Korean War, including Jesse's tragic death and Tom's efforts to save him.

Why was Devotion a flop? ›

Devotion was a colossal failure because it was produced on a budget of $90 million and Sony spent $40 million on Prints and Ads. The studio incurred additional costs including $3 million in residuals, $9 million in video costs, and $16.2 million in interest and overhead.

Is the movie Devotion worth seeing? ›

While Devotion may not look to reinvent the genre, it does carve out its own space in this year's impressive slate of war films. It's a solid, straight-laced story, that doesn't shy away from the realities of war or the 1950s. Once it finds its wings in the final act, it soars to a place of real power.

Is Devotion a sad movie? ›

His passion for flying kept him going when he faced a great deal of hatred and racist taunts from other sailors. During the film, Majors delivers an emotional performance of Brown. Majors brought very intimate and painful scenes of Brown's story to life.

Is Devotion a true story on Wikipedia? ›

The 2022 film, Devotion, is based on his 2015 book of the same title, which recounts the true story of a friendship between two U.S. Navy pilots in the Korean War.

How much of the flying in Devotion is real? ›

"Devotion" has far more footage of real airplanes than anyone could have imagined. The technology used to film these planes didn't exist just a few years ago, and it's likely that none of these planes will be airworthy just a few years from now.

What happened to the black pilot in the movie Devotion? ›

The film “Devotion” reignited efforts to repatriate the remains of Jesse Brown, America's first Black Navy pilot, who died in 1950 after having to crash land his damaged plane during the Korean War.

What happened to Jesse Brown's wife? ›

Daisy Brown remarried a naval officer seven years after Jesse's death. The military moved them to Germany and Daisy took up her dream of teaching school.

What is the theme of the movie Devotion? ›

“Devotion” is, as much as anything else, a film about loneliness. Majors portrays Brown as a deeply kind and personable man with his family, and his romance with his wife Daisy (Christina Brown, “The Night House”) is rich and affectionate. He's a great father and clearly a decent human being.

What is the story behind Devotion? ›

Based on true events, Devotion dramatizes the bond formed by Navy pilots Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner, among the first airmen deployed at the outset of the Korean War.

Why did Devotion movie flop? ›

Devotion was a colossal failure because it was produced on a budget of $90 million and Sony spent $40 million on Prints and Ads. The studio incurred additional costs including $3 million in residuals, $9 million in video costs, and $16.2 million in interest and overhead.

What spread the message of Devotion to God? ›

Bhakti saints spread the message of devotion and dedication to God. They strengthened the concept of social equality and challenged orthodox Brahmanic traditions.

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