By Ben Konuch
“I can’t tell you how many times people have told me to give up, quit, die even. That’s why you can’t always do what you’re told. If I did, I wouldn’t be here.”
“Devotion”, the 2022 Korean War aviation film, is so much more than a typical war film. While it has gorgeous aerial shots and genuinely thrilling dogfight scenes, the heart of “Devotion” is in its characters. Jonathan Majors portrays Jesse Brown, the first African-American to graduate from the Navy’s flight training program and the first African-American casualty of the Korean War, and Glen Powell portrays Tom Hudner, Brown’s friend and wingman. “Devotion” succeeds in telling its true story with heart, nuance and a thought-provoking view on race relations and what African Americans had to overcome while trying to fight for a country that wasn’t fighting for them.
The events of “Devotion” follow Tom Hudner, a recent transfer to a new assignment as Brown’s new wingman in Rhode Island. While he’s initially surprised that his new wingman is a black man, Hudner doesn’t treat him any differently. Brown is slow to trust Hudner, which is understandable considering the many ways white people have abused him and put him down before, but “Devotion” shows how these men are able to build a genuine friendship based on respect for each other despite the prejudices of the world around them. When the Korean War finally explodes into conflict, Brown and Hudner’s friendship is put to the test under fire.
The actual aerial combat in the film is electrifying, with beautiful scenes of flight and combat with actual historical planes being used in filming over the use of CGI. These fights are tense and exciting, painting a clear picture of the risks and dangers of air combat in the Korean War. However, there is surprisingly little actual action in the film, as “Devotion” uses combat as a backdrop to define its characters. My favorite scenes from the film were actually quiet moments between Brown and Hudner and their squadron exploring Paris on shore leave and developing their bonds, not the moments of well-filmed action. This is because at its core, “Devotion” isn’t really about war.
“Devotion” is first and foremost the story of Jesse Brown, painting a picture of his life, his immeasurable hardships, the way he had to carry the scars of racism and segregation but also the way he overcame every burden pushed at him with bravery and dignity. “Devotion” shows Brown’s devotion to many things, such as the incredible love he has for his wife, the way he’s devoted to being a father to his little girl, or the devotion to the pilots in his squadron and to his black brothers of the crew on his aircraft carrier that look up to him as their hero.
Jonathan Majors as Brown is one of the best performances of the year and demonstrates the incredible strength of the man while also showing an incredibly genuine emotional core. “Devotion” isn’t afraid to show scenes where Brown cries, and that’s something films seldom do for men. Brown feels things deeply, feels emotions for himself and for others, and while he seldom shows them in public, “Devotion” makes sure we see Brown being emotionally vulnerable while never losing masculinity or his strength. Instead, the emotions he feels add to his strength and are an important part of how he keeps going in the face of adversity. One of the most important and powerful scenes in the entire film is when Brown is reciting hateful words and slurs to himself, which we later find out is from a notebook filled with every hateful thing said to him as a black man that he uses as motivation and a reminder of what he’s overcome.
Central to the message and themes of “Devotion” is the friendship between Brown and his white wingman Hudner. This is a very real depiction of a very real relationship, and the most important aspect of their friendship is that Hudner never leaves or gives up on Brown. He’s far from perfect, and oftentimes his attempts to help Brown or stand up for him come across as misguided or patronizing to Brown, but Hudner still constantly tries to learn and overcome the divide and prejudice affecting even him in order to be a good friend to a man who needs one.
Unlike most civil-rights and anti-racism films of recent years, “Devotion” shows an important aspect of the struggle of black men in the white-centered world of the 1950s. It shows how the good intentions of someone who doesn’t understand can often be just as harmful as the bigots on the boat that continually harass Brown, but through understanding and commitment to each other, genuine friendships can bloom in spite of outside prejudice and the prejudices of each person. Brown is just as prejudiced towards Hudner at times, with his past unfair and horrible treatment by white peers sometimes clouding how he views his friend, but both men eventually learn how to escape those prejudices and simply be there for each other. In one key scene a frustrated, hurt Hudner asks Brown “What do you want me to do?” To which Brown replies, “Just be my wingman.”
This is the greatest devotion of “Devotion”, the commitment and loyalty to loving a friend and sticking with them through hardships, adapting and learning how to love and support them in the ways they need, not just the ways we think they want. This theme will stay with you long after the credits fade, and so will the life and heart and soul of Jesse Brown’s real story.
I give “Devotion” an 8/10
“Devotion” is now showing in theaters
Ben Konuch is a sophomore Strategic Communication student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and hanging out with crazy MuKappa friends.
Images courtesy of Columbia Pictures