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Guest Column: ‘Devotion’ Director J.D. Dillard on Why The Story of the Navy’s First Black Aviator Is So Personal

My mom’s text said they were coming to visit the set on “3/16-4/18”. Assuming a typo, I was surprised to learn that my parents were only visiting for two days. Since we had spent 12 years as a Navy family (my father was a Naval Flight Officer), I thought you might want to spend more time seeing the story of Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first black aviator, come to life on set. of Devotion. I texted her, mildly disappointed in the short visit from her, but my mother reaffirmed the dates, “3/16-4/18.” they came for a month – much more than I expected, and certainly much more than I initially wanted, but ultimately too short a time that I will always cherish.

Photos and videos of my father strapped comfortably into fighter jet seats, mirrored visor lowered and microphone pressed firmly to his lips, are among the first images I truly remember. During the release of this film, I began to realize that’s probably where my childhood obsession with bold and fearless helmet-wearing characters stems from. From Batman to Boba Fett, I always felt my father was a contemporary among these mysterious, braggart heroes. He was a father who made me the single child more excited for parents to arrive on race day than for any of our vacations.

Beyond the aesthetic interest, there was something else that my dad gave me: a fervent commitment to the pursuit of your dream. When my father was just a teenager, he lost his father unexpectedly. In the summer that followed, he was taken to an air show at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station, a now-defunct small base outside Philadelphia. Near the end of the show, the headliners roared up to begin their performance: the US Navy Flight Demonstration Team, the Blue Angels. Six McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms took off, forming an incredibly precise diamond formation above the crowd, and in an instant, my father decided that one day he would be in those blue jets himself. That dream was not burdened by the reality of the hardship to come or by the fact that no black airman had ever filled that role. It was just a dream born.

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Fifteen years later, my dad became a Blue Angel.

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Although there are so many things about his path that I can never talk about, I know that by reaching his goal, he made my parents dream facilitators. Even if a dream was not understood or supported financially, it was without fail supported emotionally. It was only as I got older that I realized how lucky I was to grow up in a home where dreams were taken seriously.

And mine was to be a filmmaker.

It took me a few days to adjust to having my parents on set. You’re trying to be strong, determined, and decisive for your team, moving forward in a movie that’s unlike anything you’ve ever done before…and there you see Mom and Dad, smiling behind the monitors with their headphones on. Suddenly, I was back in grade school: the two of them staring from the side of a game with those thumbs up as if to say, “You’ve got it!” Early in his visit, I made the mistake of letting that make me feel small: he produced the 33-year-old’s version of “Mom, could you drop me on the block?” — but I shouldn’t have, because small isn’t something I’ve been made to feel. To look at this experience from their point of view is to be overwhelmed with pride. Devotionin a sense, it is the fruit of their love, patience, support and history.

Jesse Brown, like my dad, found his dream in the fields below an air show. Jesse’s wife, Daisy, like my mother, was the co-conspirator of a dream as she tirelessly dedicated herself to the little-celebrated task of raising good people. Devotion it was also the story of my parents.

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I never planned to cast my father in the movie. While he is credited as a “technical consultant to Navy pilots,” I connected with him the most in the film’s quieter moments. Far more important than the technical aspects were the internal emotional details. Our talks over lunch or after the goodbye were about family, trust, isolation, and the constant engine of one’s own momentum. The substance of these conversations is what filled in the gaps between the lines of the script, and I finally felt like I could speak to the experience of those we were portraying. Ultimately, that was one of the biggest gifts of the movie: the time I got to spend with my dad. Behind the pressure, excitement, and anxiety of production, we had conversations I never knew we needed to have, conversations I now can’t imagine my life without.

As well as Devotion takes off and heads toward the horizon, I realize there may be no going back. I know my dad will support me with whatever dreams I have, but I suspect I’ve already made his favorite movie, because it’s partly a movie about him.

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This story first appeared in a December standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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