Dillard’s film begins in 1948 with Hudner’s arrival at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Pensacola, Florida. He enters a cacophonous men’s locker room populated by wrathful insults. These vulgar barbs don’t come from a mob. They come from one man: Brown. Hudner never sees Brown yelling at himself, as the tears this black man shed are not for Hudner (although Dillard and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt do show us those tears through an arresting fourth-wall-breaking mirror image). The calm, naive, all-American Hudner casts a different shadow than the quiet, withdrawn, no-nonsense Brown. In terms of temperament, they should not be friends. Screenwriters Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart don’t try to force the issue either, which gives ‘Devotion’ an unusual freedom. Instead, this thrilling, pulsating journey is more about the two men bonding through shared respect than through a fantastical misunderstanding of place and time.
Brown is an aviator with so many invisible wounds; The obscenities he yells at himself come from a little book where he keeps every slander ever hurled at him. One of the Navy’s first African-American aviators, Brown experienced bodily harm and several attempts on his life at the hands of his segregationist “comrades” in his early career. We don’t see the violence Brown endured. Dillard is too smart for such low-hanging fruit. Instead, we witness the repercussions on Brown’s psyche through Majors’ adept physical performance, a tight bundle of a swaggering gait that wraps weight on his broad shoulders and tension around his face.
“Devotion” chronicles Hudner’s steady progress toward understanding Brown without infantilizing this proud pilot. In turn, Brown slowly brings Hudner into his job and we are introduced to Brown’s daughter Pamela and his devoted wife Daisy (Christina Jackson). Dillard juxtaposes this domestic life—where Brown can leave pressure and racism behind, where his whole frame and face light up with joy—against the difficult landscape of being the only black man in a sea of white naval aviators. Jackson is a burst of cheering air as Daisy, providing the picture with much-needed levity and grace. And in many ways, more than desegregation or war, the bond Daisy and Jesse share gives the image a palpable heartbeat.