Dillard’s film opens in 1948 with Hudner’s arrival at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. He enters a cacophonous men’s locker room populated by angry swearers. These vulgar barbs do not spring from a crowd. They come from one man: Brown. Hudner never sees Brown yelling at himself, as the tears this black man sheds are not for Hudner (though Dillard and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt show us those tears through an arresting, fourth-wall-breaking mirror shot). The quiet, naïve, all-American Hudner casts a different shadow than the calm, aloof, no-nonsense Brown. In terms of temperament, they should not be friends. Screenwriters Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart don’t even try to push the issue, which gives “Devotion” unusual freedom. Instead, this thrilling and pulsating journey is more about forging a bond between the two men through mutual respect rather than a fantastical misunderstanding of place and time.
Brown is an aviator with so many invisible scars; The supplies he yells at himself come from a little book where he keeps every slur ever hurled at him. One of the Navy’s first African-American aviators, Brown experienced bodily harm and several assassination attempts by his segregationist “buddies” in his early career. We don’t see the violence that Brown endured. Dillard’s is very smart about such low-hanging fruit. Instead, we witness the toll on Brown’s psyche through Majors’ deft physical performance, a tight set of lurching gaits that belie the weight on his broad shoulders and the tension wrapped around his face.
“Devotion” shows the steady progress Hudner makes toward understanding Brown without infantilizing this proud pilot. Brown, in turn, slowly brings Hudner into his orbit, and we are introduced to Brown’s daughter Pamela and his devoted wife Daisy (Christina Jackson). Dillard juxtaposes this home life—where Brown can let go of the pressures and racism, where his whole frame and appearance light up with joy—with the difficult landscape of being the only black man in a sea of white naval aviators. Jackson is an exhilarating breeze as Daisy, providing the picture with a much-needed levity and grace. And in many ways, the bond shared by Daisy and Jesse, more than desegregation or war, gives the picture a palpable heartbeat.