‘Devotion’ Review: Historical Account of a Barrier-Breaking Black Pilot

‘Devotion’ Review: Historical Account of a Barrier-Breaking Black Pilot

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African-American boxing champion Muhammad Ali famously refused to fight for his country, justifying himself with the oft-quoted joke, “No Viet Cong ever called me n—-.” That’s half of American history, and an important one. “Dedication” tells the other, presenting the story of a black pilot so determined to defend the United States — and die if necessary — that he was willing to endure institutional bigotry to become the Jackie Robinson of the skies: Jesse Brown, the first colored aviator 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 the biggest screen possible at the Toronto Film Festival, two months before its theatrical release on November 23. With elements of both ‘Green Book’ and ‘Red Tails’, the film is more than just a rousing case of Black Exceptionalism; it also celebrates the only white officer who had Brown’s back, Tom Hudner, and treats the bond these two men formed as something exceptional in its own right. Director JD Dillard dazzles with see-it-in-Imax aerial scenes, but the film’s flesh focuses on the friendship between Brown (“Da 5 Bloods” star 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 blockbuster, it’s seemingly no problem that many of the young pilots gathered for the film’s trick-fly mission are women and people of color — the implication is that the fight for equality in the U.S. armed forces has long been ago fought and won. In “Devotion” that battle is still actively going on. Brown keeps a book in which he has written every insult and epithet ever thrown at him. Most days, as a brutal kind of motivational exercise, he stares at himself in the mirror and yells them back at the face he sees there — at one point straight into the camera. This is his armor, the way he makes himself hard for any new disrespect the other pilots might throw at him.

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“Devotion” is set in 1950, but that mirror scene will undoubtedly resonate with contemporary audiences as well. Today we talk about ‘micro-aggressions’, a way in which such barbs still manifest themselves. But before the civil rights movement, at a time when segregation was widely practiced in the United States, Brown would have fully accepted such bigotry. Men like Hudner were the exception: someone decent enough to offer a fellow black aviator a ride, or to step in and deliver the first blow when less-acceptable soldiers try to provoke a brawl.

Many black men had served in the U.S. military before Brown, although national policies separated them from white soldiers and Jim Crow rules still applied. “Did you ever think you’d be employed by a colored sailor?” asks one of the other pilots, who could be Joe Jonas (the vaguely defined white supporting characters all fade together). Hudner does not share their horror at the new situation. Usually he just craves action. Hudner enlisted when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but the war ended a week before graduating, meaning he missed the “Big Show” (pilot language for WW2 air battles). While much of “Devotion” is presented through Hudner’s eyes, Dillard occasionally breaks out of that perspective to share Brown’s experience, and each time he does, the movie gets more interesting: the scene where Brown meets Elizabeth Taylor on the beach at Cannes, for example, or an important interaction with a lower black sailor, presenting him a symbol of admiration from the men.

Integration was a difficult process throughout American society, as those indoctrinated by notions of their own superiority tried to hold on to power for as long as possible. Re-watching this on-screen dynamic is always ugly and potentially triggering for many, which is one reason storytellers prefer to focus on progressive cases like Hudner, who shows no overt racism when he meets Brown at Quonset Point base in Rhode Island. .

Though both gifted pilots, Brown struggled to adapt to the fighter jet the Navy introduced in 1950, the Vought F4U Corsair, whose bulky engine blocked his view. That late-in-the-game change adds a level of suspense to the film’s aerial scenes — a few, like the early lighthouse run, exist to give audiences a taste of the same excitement these men experienced in the cockpit. While flying is a thrill, landing aboard an aircraft carrier can be downright nerve-wracking. Not everyone survives this test.

After a band in the air, Brown invites Hudner over and introduces the white man to his wife (Christina Jackson) and child – “to see what a man fights for,” as Hudner puts it. Despite this gesture, it takes almost the entire movie for Brown to accept his partner. Why? Hudner may have been ahead of his colleagues, but so much of his support comes easily — that is, without personal risk. Brown makes that clear after being subpoenaed for disobeying a direct order in the film’s most exciting sequence, a daring 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 is worth it: audiences have seen much of Brown’s unfair treatment before, both in life and in other movies, but there are still a few lessons for Hudner to learn. to learn about being an effective alley. The film’s grand finale mirrors “Top Gun: Maverick” in some ways, as Hudner puts his life on the line to save his friend. Brown has already proven his dedication; however, through Hudner’s actions, the country is able to show this pioneering black aviator that same respect.

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