Dillard’s film opens in 1948 with Hudner’s arrival at the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Pensacola, Florida. He enters a cacophonous men’s locker room populated by wrathful slurs. These vulgar barbs are not emanating from a mob. They’re coming from one man: Brown. Hudner never sees Brown shouting at himself, as the tears this Black man sheds aren’t for Hudner (though Dillard and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt do show us those tears through an arresting fourth-wall-breaking mirror shot). The calm, naive, all-American Hudner casts a different shadow from the quiet, reclusive, no-nonsense Brown. In terms of temperament, they shouldn’t be friends. Screenwriters Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart don’t try to force the issue either, which gives “Devotion” uncommon freedom. Instead, this thrilling, pulsating journey is more concerned with the two men forming a bond through shared respect rather than a fantastical misunderstanding of the place and time.
Brown is an aviator with so many unseen wounds; The obscenities he yells at himself spring from a little book where he keeps every slur that’s ever been hurled in his direction. One of the Navy’s first African American aviators, Brown experienced bodily harm and several attempts on his life from his segregationist “comrades” in his early career. We don’t see the violence that Brown endured. Dillard is too smart for such low-hanging fruit. We instead witness the repercussions on Brown’s psyche through Majors’ adept physical performance, a tight bundle of a swaggering gait belying the weight on his broad shoulders and tension wrapped around his face.
“Devotion” chronicles the steady progression Hudner makes toward understanding Brown without infantilizing this proud pilot. Brown, in turn, slowly brings Hudner into his orbit and we’re introduced to Brown’s daughter Pamela and his devoted wife Daisy (Christina Jackson). Dillard juxtaposes this home life—where Brown can leave the pressures and racism, where his entire frame and visage lightens with joy—with the difficult landscape of being the only Black man in a sea of white naval aviators. Jackson is a burst of jubilant air as Daisy, offering the picture some much-needed levity and grace. And in many ways, the bond shared by Daisy and Jesse, more so than desegregation or war, provides the picture with a palpable heartbeat.