You might think that being the first Black naval pilot to enter into aerial maneuvers in the Korean War would be a thing of high pride for Jesse Brown. But he hasn’t the aptitude or patience for such things. It’s hard enough being Black in the 1950s—a time of cultural prejudice and change—without being looked at, evaluated and judged constantly.
And of course, standing in front of an F4U Corsair while reporters from Look magazine snap photos and talk about the “Black folks” back home, just adds all the more pressure.
Jesse must push himself harder, further. He must be better. Good enough may be just dandy for some white pilots, but Jesse can’t be simply good enough.
He and his wife, Daisy, love each other dearly and do their best at raising their little daughter. But sometimes, they kinda feel like they’re on their own little island: alone and separate. And some of Jesse’s fellow pilots—all white—even make that standoff clear on the flight deck.
The new guy, Tom Hudner, however, is different. Yeah, he’s a bit cocky, having actually come from officer’s flight school, but he’s one of the good ones. And when he’s assigned as Jesse’s wingman, the two become friends, slowly … but definitely.
Black, white or green, a pilot needs a good wingman if he hopes to succeed. You need someone you can trust flying next to you, someone you can believe in. Otherwise, you’ll end up going down in flames.
And that’s a trip Jesse Brown can’t afford to take.
This is more than a film about a Black pilot in the 1950s. It’s also the story of a Black hero. Even though he never asked for recognition, Jesse Brown becomes a man who many in his community (and onboard his ship) look up to as an inspiration. And at the same time, he chooses to be a levelheaded individual who navigates the cultural prejudice around him.
For instance, while out on leave with fellow pilots, Jesse refuses to drink and always steels himself to quietly defuse any potentially explosive situations, even when other pilots don’t. And the film points out that Jesse let his valiant actions speak for him—gaining the respect of even those who seemingly despise him for his race.
Jesse and Daisy are an example, too, of a loving couple devoted to one another. And Tom demonstrates his friendship and respect for Jesse.
On the battlefield, a pinned-down marine asks his buddy if he knows any prayers. The buddy replies that they could ask God to send the help of angels. (And in a way, he gets his request fulfilled.)
The pilot’s commanding officer jokingly comments that the pilots are not in the service to fly and have sex.
While on leave, however, several of the naval pilots disembark with just that goal in mind. They flirt and carouse. Jesse abstains, however, and walks on the beach. But there he meets a bathing suit-clad Elizabeth Taylor (yes, the famous actress) with some other bikini girls. She invites him and his friends to a party, which is filled with women in low-cut and figure-hugging outfits. Tom connects with a pretty woman whom he kisses.
Jesse and Daisy kiss lovingly on several occasions. In the pilots’ locker room, the camera spies a number of pinup pictures of bikini-clad women.
This is a war movie, but much of the devastation on hand is seen from a pilot’s perspective high above the ground. Planes drop highly explosive bombs and riddle the battlefields with gunfire. Rail depots, artillery sites and bridges are bombed and destroyed, and we see hundreds of soldiers running for cover.
That said, there are some up-close battle scenes on the ground as marines in foxholes are bombed with artillery shells and picked off by the strafing enemy gunfire and sniper fire. Some men are shot in the head and torso and crumple backward, dead.
Pilots attempt to land their nose-heavy planes on a carrier deck for the first time. One flies in too low and crashes into the rear of the ship. We don’t see the actual crash, but men run to the stern and see the smashed plane remains sinking.
Jesse comments that he refuses to follow the signaling crewman’s directions while approaching the ship because he fears the man would purposely cause him to crash because of his race. He also speaks with Tom about the torture he went through while applying for the Navy. The officers forced him to endure grueling conditions for hours because they refused to believe that a Black man could swim.
Jesse and Tom encounter and dogfight with a Russian MiG jet. We see planes explode. All of the pilots endure heavy artillery fire, and some are shot down. We see one pilot on the ground, trapped in his burning plane.
We hear three or four uses of the n-word and other racial crudities. Other than that, there are four s-words spit out, along with a use each of the words “a–,” “h—,” “d–n” and “whore.”
Being the 1950s, a lot of men and women smoke cigarettes on several occasions, and one officer smokes a pipe. When Jesse and his fellow pilots go into Italy on leave, they strap packages of cigarettes under their shirts to exchange for cash and booze.
We also see the pilots drinking during social gatherings. And all but Jesse drink pretty heavily while on shore leave. Several pilots and other seamen get drunk and stagger about during leave. Some cause fights.
On several occasions, in an effort to push himself through difficult situations, Jesse looks in the mirror and intensely recites a string of odious and racially derogatory slurs at himself. They’re all hateful statements, we later discover, that were said to him in the past and that he’s written down in a notebook.
A few white pilots and sailors make some ugly comments to Jesse as well, calling him a circus act and worse. We see people gambling and losing.
Devotion is a very good war movie.
I can’t say that this pic ever soars into the stratosphere of “great” movies, aesthetical—thanks to a pedestrian script and a few difficult problem spots—but it definitely flies straight and true.
The film’s presentation of its Black pilot hero (based on the real Korean War vet) and his family; the aerial action; the solid acting; the emotional comradery; and even most of the 1950s social commentary make this an enjoyable, enlightening and, for a war movie, relatively content-free film.
There are, however, a few moments—when Jesse Brown stares into a mirror and batters himself with coarse racial slurs, for instance—that detract. Those raw interactions may be intended as a bit of shocking racial therapy for viewers, but they, and a few other content concerns, nudge this pic into a less-than-positive airspace for younger family members.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.