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'Devotion' follows a Black pilot and his wingman as they fight in the Korean War


"Devotion" is a film about the power of trust and friendship against all odds. It tells the true story of an elite Black fighter pilot overcoming adversity in an all-white naval company during the Korean War.


JONATHAN MAJORS: (As Jesse Brown) The swim test in flight school - they made me do it 10 times. They dumped ice in the water, put weights in my flight suit. But every time, I made it out. I can't tell you how many times people have told me to give up, quit. That's why you can't always do what you're told. If I did, I wouldn't be here.

RASCOE: Jonathan Majors, who plays pilot Jesse Brown, and Glen Powell, as wingman Tom Hudner, star in the film that's out this week. J.D. Dillard is the director of the film and joins me now. Thank you so much for joining us.

J D DILLARD: Thanks for having me, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So talk to me about how you came to this story. It's based on a book, right? But you also have some family history with the Navy, right?

DILLARD: I do. So about 30 years after Jesse and Tom, my dad was commissioned into the Navy as a naval flight officer. So, you know, when I first sort of read the script, I kind of found my way crying throughout the whole thing. Not just because Jesse and Tom's story is so incredible, but kind of baked into Jesse's story, I just saw so much overlap with my dad's experience in the Navy. So to be able to kind of tell both of these stories at the same time was - I won't joke, it was kind of overwhelming (laughter).

RASCOE: I mean, like, what were some of the similarities that you saw? Because as you said, this happened - you know, your father entered the Navy 30 years after Jesse. And so did he face some of those challenges Jesse faced?

DILLARD: You know, he did face some similar challenges. You know, there were still, you know, the handful of folks who don't understand why you're there or even want you to be there. But I think almost, you know, more what the movie plays with was kind of the isolation - you know? - to be in such a high-pressure environment and looking to your left and right, and there's no one else that looks like you. And that takes a very specific toll on you when you're alone and in an environment like that, and I think so many of us at times still feel in, you know, our sort of respective worlds.

RASCOE: One thing that just stood out to me was when you talk about that issue of trust. I feel like a part of the film was about what it really means to be an ally, what it really means to be a wingman. And it seemed like that was something that Tom Hudner, that character, who was white - that he struggled with a bit, right?

DILLARD: Yeah. Well, I mean, it's one of the paradoxes for Jesse. You know, the very thing that has been so crucial to him getting to where he is is also, you know, the thing that makes it hard for him to connect with some of the folks that, you know, he flies with. And I think, you know, at the end of the day, that's kind of the fundamental drama between Jesse and Tom - you know, Tom being someone very eager to - wanting to figure it out but doesn't quite have the language to. You know, the nuance required to actually be there for someone is quite a bit more complicated than I think, you know, sometimes we give credit to. But, you know, even though the story takes place in 1950, you know, we felt that there was a lot of space to have a very sort of modern conversation around, you know, true allyship and sort of have that be the beating heart of the movie.

RASCOE: We do know and talk about and see challenges that Jesse faces to get where he is. A lot of the story is kind of told from Hudner's perspective. But, like, why take that approach?

DILLARD: Well, you know, I'd say this. We really want it to actually be from Jesse's point of view. But there are a couple of pieces that Jesse is hiding from everyone - you know, Tom and the audience included. And to really bring the audience in on some of those, we sort of get a whisper of this ritual that Jesse does. And it's only later does Jesse kind of show us what that really is. You know, and it's a kind of incredible thing that we found out about him and that he would write, you know, down all of these hateful things that people have said to him, you know, over the course of his childhood.

RASCOE: We don't want to give too much away. But as you mentioned, there are these very intense scenes where Jonathan Majors, as Jesse, is looking at himself in the mirror and repeating these racist insults about himself. Talk to me about - what did you want to convey with that?

DILLARD: Well, you know, in that scene, it is - in a movie where, you know, we don't necessarily spend, in traditional biopic way, the sequence of his whole journey to get to this moment. And the notebook full of, you know, hateful things being a real thing that Jesse did as a boy - we knew that that would be, like, a really kind of heartbreaking and kind of implicating way to show the audience, you know, really what the path has been and what it cost him. Jonathan being the incredible actor that he is really made that personal for himself. And even when it came down to the day, you know, there's obviously what was written in the script and then there's wherever an actor has to go to really tap into that. And at a certain point, you know, the words that are coming out of Jonathan's mouth are not even what's in the script, but it's just the sort of almost ancestral connection to that feeling that we've all had, where you hear the voices that have told you you can't do it. And you hold them almost as a reminder to help you push through.

RASCOE: I mean - and you do take time to expose the audience to Jesse Brown's family - Daisy and his very young daughter. Like, why was that something that you wanted the audience to see - to see that relationship, especially with Daisy?

DILLARD: Well, you know, it's what makes Jesse's heart beat, you know? And I feel like there's sort of this expectation in a military movie that you got to focus on the conflict and, you know, start cutting the stuff out with the family so you can spend more time in the conflict. But to really show who Jesse was and, I think, to even earn the weight of our title "Devotion," you first had to understand his relationship with his wife.


GLEN POWELL: (As Tom Hudner) Well, your husband's quite the aviator.

CHRISTINA JACKSON: (As Daisy Brown) Well, he must feel the same way about you because you and Carol Mohring are the only boys from 532 that he has ever invited over.

POWELL: (As Tom Hudner) Lot of time in very small spaces.

JACKSON: (As Daisy Brown) May I ask you a favor?

POWELL: (As Tom Hudner) Of course.

JACKSON: (As Daisy Brown) Second he steps on that ship and into that plane, I can't protect him anymore. So I need you to be there for my Jesse, OK?

POWELL: (As Tom Hudner) OK.

RASCOE: Did you ever talk to your father, who, as you said, was a naval aviator, about the idea of what it means to fight for a country that does not necessarily fight for you?

DILLARD: You know, we did. And we talked about that and so many other aspects of what it means to be, you know, a Black man in that cockpit. And I used him quite severely throughout this entire process. You know, it was sort of the emotional consulting. You know, it was asking him, you know, what was it like to tell mom for the first time that, you know, you were going to leave? What is it like balancing the sort of fear of safety with having a newborn? It was - sort of the fruits of those conversations are - were ultimately, I think, way more important for what the film ended up being.

RASCOE: That's director J.D. Dillard. His new movie "Devotion" is out this week on major streaming services and in select theaters. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

DILLARD: My God, thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF WASHED OUT'S "MILES' LULLABY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is the host of "Weekend Edition Sunday" and the Saturday episodes of "Up First." As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.