JD Dillard Brings the ‘Top Gun’ Mojo to the Historic Tale of a Black Pilot Breaking Barriers


Famous African-American boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to fight for his country, justifying himself with the oft-quoted quip, “No Viet Cong ever called me n—–.” It’s half the story of America, and a big one. “Dedication‘ tells the other, featuring the story of a black pilot so determined to defend – and die for, if need be – the United States that he was willing to endure institutional bigotry to become the Jackie Robinson of the skies. : Jesse Brown, the first colored Airman to complete the Navy’s basic training program.

A square yet satisfying social justice drama set against the backdrop of the Korean War, “Devotion” impressed on the biggest screen possible at home. Toronto Film Festival two months before its theatrical release on November 23. Featuring elements from both “Green Book” and “Red Tails,” the film is more than a moving case of black exceptionalism; it also celebrates the only white officer who had Brown’s back, Tom Hudner, treating the bond these two men formed as something exceptional in itself. Director JD Dillard dazzles with aerial footage to see in Imax, but the meat of the film focuses on the friendship between Brown (star of “Da 5 Bloods” Jonathan Majors) and his white wingman, played by Glen Powell, the “Hidden Figures” actor who most recently appeared in “Top Gun: Maverick.”

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In this inclusive-minded blockbuster, it apparently doesn’t matter that many of the young pilots assembled for the film’s crafty flight mission are women and people of color – the implication being that the battle for equality treatment in the US Armed Forces has long been fought and won. In “Devotion”, this struggle is still actively underway. Brown keeps a book in which he wrote all the insults and epithets thrown at him. Most of the time, as some sort of brutal motivational exercise, he looks in the mirror and yells them at the face he sees there — straight into the camera at some point. It’s his armor, the way he toughens himself up for any further disrespect the other pilots might throw at him.

“Devotion” is set in 1950, but this mirror scene will no doubt resonate with contemporary audiences as well. Today we talk about “microaggressions,” which is one of the ways these beards still manifest. Prior to the civil rights movement, however, at a time when segregation was widely practiced in the United States, Brown would have taken such bigotry head on. Men like Hudner were the exception: someone decent enough to offer a ride to another black airman, or to step in and deliver the first punch when less tolerant soldiers try to start a fight.

Many black men had served in the U.S. military before Brown, although national policy separated them from white soldiers and Jim Crow rules still applied. “Did you ever think you’d be in the service of a colored sailor?” asks one of the other pilots, who could be Joe Jonas (the vaguely defined white supporting characters all blur together). Hudner does not share their disgust at the new situation. Above all, he just craves action. Hudner enlisted when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but the war ended a week before he was to graduate, meaning he missed the “Big Show” (pilot talking about combat aircraft of World War II). Although much of “Devotion” is presented through Hudner’s eyes, Dillard occasionally breaks away from that perspective to share Brown’s experience, and each time he does, the film becomes more interesting: the scene where Brown meets Elizabeth Taylor on the beach in Cannes, for example. , or significant interaction with a lower-ranking black sailor, who presents him with a symbol of male admiration.

Integration was a difficult process in American society, as those indoctrinated by notions of their own superiority tried to retain their power for as long as possible. Revisiting these dynamics on screen is invariably ugly and potentially triggering for many, which is one reason storytellers prefer to focus on progressive cases like Hudner, who shows no overt racism when he meets Brown at the Quonset Point base in Rhode Island.

Although they were both gifted pilots, Brown found it difficult to adapt to the fighter aircraft introduced by the Navy in 1950, the Vought F4U Corsair, whose bulky engine blocked visibility. This late-game change adds a level of suspense to the film’s aerial sequences – a few of which, like the first lighthouse run, exist simply to give audiences a taste of the same exhilaration these men experienced in the cockpit. While flying is fun, landing on an aircraft carrier can be downright nerve-wracking. Not everyone survives this ordeal.

After bonding in heaven, Brown invites Hudner over and introduces the white man to his wife (Christina Jackson) and child – “to see why a man fights,” as Hudner puts it. Despite this gesture, it takes almost the entire film for Brown to accept his partner. Why? Hudner may have been ahead of his peers, but much of his support is easy, meaning no personal risk. Brown makes that clear after being cited for disobeying a direct order in the film’s most electrifying sequence, a breakneck dogfight immediately followed by the bombing of a Korean bridge.

This is where Dillard’s decision to tell the story primarily through Hudner’s eyes pays off: Audiences have already seen much of the unfair treatment Brown faces, whether in life or in life. other films, but Hudner still has some lessons to learn about being an effective actor. ally. The film’s grand finale mirrors “Top Gun: Maverick” in some ways, as Hudner puts his life on the line to save his friend. Brown has already proven his dedication; thanks to Hudner’s actions, however, the country is able to show that same respect to this pioneering black aviator.

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