HBCU students from numerous universities around the country, including Howard University, had the opportunity to interview actors Jonathan Majors and Christina Jackson, as well as director J.D. Dillard via Zoom for the upcoming film “Devotion,” hosted by news and media outlet Watch the Yard.
Inspired by true events, the film is about Jesse Brown, the first Black naval officer in U.S. history, and his wingman, Tom Hudner, fighting through the 1950s Korean War.
Majors, known for the HBO series, “Lovecraft Country,” the recent Marvel project “Loki” and the upcoming movie, “Ant-man and the Wasp: Quatumania,” plays Brown alongside co-stars Glen Powell and Christina Jackson. Directed by Dillard, known for his work on “The Twilight Zone” reboot, “Devotion” has been welcomed with critical acclaim weeks before its theatrical release.
After brief introductions from the cast and the discussion moderator Miles Jones, a Dillard University alumnus, the roundtable discussion opened with a question about any challenges in production that were overcome.
“The responsibility of what we were doing,” Dillard began. “Obviously, you want to tell an honest story, whether it’s a true story or not, but there’s a different weight when you’re working with the real legacy of real people.”
Jackson and Majors echoed his thoughts and the conversation transitioned into storytelling as a whole, revealing new information about Dillard’s introduction into directing and Majors’ love for literature, shedding light on why they decided to enter the TV/film industry.
“I played a ‘Star Wars’ computer game not knowing there was a movie… and then my dad realized how into the game I was and was like, you know, they made a bunch of movies about this…” Dillard said. “When I watched ‘A New Hope’ for the first time, it gave language, it gave character, it gave depth to this thing I was doing on the computer – this thing that almost felt inanimate was suddenly given life and it was given worlds. I wanted to make that jump, I wanted to lie on paper and I fell in love with it right then.”
After Dillard finished speaking, Majors and Jackson remarked on the new personal information divulged from their director, surprised they hadn’t heard about that story before the interview.
“For me, it was quite unorthodox. My imagination always kind of got me in trouble,” Majors said, reflecting on his past. “I would just read a lot of books out on the farm and just sit and imagine what it would be like to be one of the three musketeers, or whatever it was… you kind of play pretend in it, your imagination just kind of goes and it plays Charles Dickens and then, later on, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin… it has a texture to it and you try to embody it.”
Jackson continued on the topic of storytelling, describing her love and admiration for “different times and places and people and situations.”
“You appreciate it more because you know that just because somebody is on the other side of the world, that doesn’t mean they don’t know what you’re going through or what you’re feeling,” Jackson said. “So for me, storytelling is a level of connectivity, to be able to do it with people who also enjoy storytelling, it gives you that passion and power to keep going.”
The discussion eventually shifted to the film’s subjects and historical context. When asked about why they think Brown’s story isn’t as well-known as it should be, Jackson, Majors and Dillard were “stumped.”
“The more that I’m stumped, the more I realize what the book, what the movie is for,” Dillard responded. “When you’re introduced to Jesse and Tom, what happened there in 1950 and the years preceding it, it is so extraordinary.”
Despite Dillard’s struggle to “make sense” of the lack of coverage of Brown’s story, Majors offered a perspective that gave some insight into why he believes Brown’s legacy has gone largely underappreciated.
“It’s not the Tuskegee Airmen, where it’s a group of them. You can lift up this group, but to celebrate one individual in a forum that is primarily dominated by white men is difficult,” Majors said. “When you look at Jesse Brown, you do see someone that broke through by himself. This little Black boy from Mississippi did that.”
As the conversation progressed, questions about the emotions Jackson and Majors felt while shooting the film were brought up, as well as Dillard’s relationship with the story, harkening back to Dillard’s personal life experiences with his father.
“On the day, it was really just about surrendering,” Jackson said. “When you do take after take when Jonathan changes up the way that he stands or the way that he sits or the way that he looks at me, there is an adjustment that happens… I was very surprised I was able to get through the scenes without crying because we’re displaying this love.”
When speaking about his father, Dillard saw Brown as a representation of the family life he experienced. He saw Brown’s wife, Daisy, as a representation of his mother, seeing the similarities between Brown’s story and his own.
“The best reference I had was so close to me,” Dillard said. “My dad was a naval aviator, he was the second African-American Blue Angel. When it came time to really dive into how isolated Jesse was, how isolated Daisy was, there was only one Black naval aviator wife, all I had to do was call home.”
“Devotion” comes out in theaters on Wednesday, Nov. 23.
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