Dillard’s film opens in 1948 with Hudner’s arrival at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Pensacola, Florida. He enters a cacophonous men’s locker room populated by angry backbiting. These vulgar barbs do not come from a mob. They come from one man: Brown. Hudner never sees Brown yelling at himself, as the tears this black man sheds are not for Hudner (although Dillard and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt 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 The calm, naive, all-American Hudner casts a different shadow than the quiet, withdrawn, no-nonsense Brown.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 nor try to force the issue, which gives “Devotion” uncommon freedom. Instead, this exciting, pulsating journey is more about the two men forming a bond through mutual respect rather than a fantastic misunderstanding of place and time.
Brown is an airman with so many unseen wounds; The obscenities he shouts at himself spring from a little book in which he keeps every expletive ever hurled in his direction. One of the Navy’s first African-American airmen, Brown experienced bodily harm and several attempts on his life from his segregationist “buddies” in his early career. We don’t see the violence that Brown endured. Dillard’s is too smart for such low-hanging fruit. We instead witness the toll on Brown’s psyche through Majors’ deft physical performance, a tight bundle of a staggering gait that rests weight on his broad shoulders and tension wrapped around his face.
“Devotion” chronicles Hudner’s steady progress toward understanding Brown without infantilizing this proud pilot. Brown, in turn, slowly brings Hudner into his circle, and we are introduced to Brown’s daughter Pamela and his devoted wife Daisy (Christina Jackson). Dillard juxtaposes this home life—where Brown can leave the pressure and racism behind, where his whole body and face light up 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 frivolity and grace. And in many ways, the bond between Daisy and Jesse, more than desegregation or war, gives the picture a palpable heartbeat.