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‘Devotion’ Star Jonathan Majors on the Untold Stories of Black Excellence

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In Sony’s Devotion, Jonathan Majors stars as Jesse Brown, the first Black aviator to complete the Navy’s basic training program. Set in the months leading to the Korean War, the film — directed by JD Dillard and adapted from Adam Makos’ nonfiction book by screenwriters Jake Crane and Jonathan A. Stewart — also stars Glen Powell as Tom Hudner, a naval lieutenant assigned to be Brown’s wingman The film follows the pair as they train for battle and learn the tricky (and dangerous) challenge of landing a plane on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Their professional partnership soon evolves into a friendship so strong that they are willing to sacrifice their lives to protect each other, on the ground as well as in the air.

For Majors, playing Brown was a highlight in his burgeoning screen career. While he has appeared in revisionist period dramas like The Harder They Fall and Lovecraft Country (earning an Emmy nom for the latter), Devotion called for more grounded work and a detailed understanding of Brown as a real-life figure who, Majors says, perfectly encapsulated the notion of Black excellence.

What about the project — and Jesse Brown as a character — did you first connect with?

I’m from Texas. Where I’m from, we say that we were “born in the mud.” Jesse Brown was, too, and that’s one thing I attached to the first version that I read. The more I read, the more I realized this guy is quite contemporary. He’s trying to maintain excellence in a society that is really built against him. That, in and of itself, is a high level of difficulty. Honestly, it’s a Black character, and it’s real.

When we meet Jesse, we don’t watch him rise to the occasion — he’s already risen to it. He’s doing what his job requires him to do, and it’s almost not special.

I love that, because the maintenance of excellence is not a story we’ve seen before. We always watch someone struggle to the top, and then achieve or fall from the top, what have you. But the maintenance of it is quite difficult. He’s leading a revolution and doesn’t know it. He’s actually a maverick. That’s not just a nickname.

You get the sense that he doesn’t realize how groundbreaking he is. The scene where he receives a Rolex as a gift from the Black men in the Navy, for example — part of the power of him being a role model is that it’s a surprise to him.

This could be controversial, but I would say when people start out on something, they’re not doing it for anybody else but themselves. No one wants to say that. It’s not heroic. But in the doing of it, the momentum of it becomes something greater than oneself. He’s trying to pull himself up from his bootstraps and get to the sky.

In my class at Yale, there were two other Black guys. We’re not thinking about a movement, we’re thinking about getting this graduate degree and getting the fuck out of school, so we can do what we need to do, because that’s what we want to do. In my personal life, I see homies on the street like, “Hey, man, appreciate you, brother.” Outside of the work, outside of the flying, Jesse is representing something greater, for an entire group of people that move and look and come from backgrounds as he did.

Majors and Glen Powell in Sony's Devotion.

Majors and Glen Powell in Sony’s Devotion.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

The stakes are already high in the military, but then on top of that, Jesse has to go above and beyond, constantly. How did you bring that inner struggle out into the open?

The monomania of getting into the sky transcends any barrier that puts him on the ground. His self-possession was so great. Jesse’s from Mississippi, and it’s documented that he changed the way he sounded in order not to receive the initial prejudice over his dialect. How much discomfort do you have to feel to do that, and then how does that manifest? You’ve got to find an acute particularity to the character. You can’t just be a flyboy — there is something peculiar about this individual that makes them who they are and pushes them. [forward].

The drive just to complete his personal mission is peculiar — not many people have that drive to do something so incredible.

But that’s the difference between being dutiful and being devoted. Jesse is devoted to flight. He is devoted to being a soldier, he is devoted to being a husband. That’s a superpower. I think he got so far because he was not just trying to be the first Black naval aviator. That’s what the interview scene [in which Life magazine runs a story about Jesse] is about: “Do not minimize my devotion or my ambition. I’m not flying planes because I like it, I’m not flying planes because I’m good at it. I’m flying planes because I’m devoted to it.” I can say, with an open heart, humbly: I’m not acting because I want to be on the big screen. I’m acting because it’s everything I’ve ever wanted to do since I was sleeping in the back of my car. The appetite for it is far beyond [being] in a cool movie.

You’ve done a lot of period pieces. Is that something you’re drawn to, the responsibilities of telling a story from the past? While Devotion is more straightforward, projects like Lovecraft Country and The Harder They Fall subvert the expectations of what a period piece can be.

Opportunity is interesting. It might just be luck of the draw, you know? I do think it might just be my aesthetic. It might be because my mom and grandpa always told me to sit up straight. My posture is naturally pretty upright. But no, I have no affinity for the corrective narratives. But I do feel like the characters that I was asked to play in those particular roles did give me an opportunity to explore my ancestry. And they gave me a chance to learn more. It’s interesting to go back and do the history of your people and your country before having the opportunity to literally tell the future of them. That’s a gift, in a way, this responsibility to take [the past] and apply it to contemporary things.

Hollywood tends to produce movies about Black pain, often to give white audiences an empathetic tool to understand that experience. But this film is not Black trauma — it’s about Black excellence and Black joy. Was that important to you?

My lineage is that I’m Black. When I go home, I’m dealing with my late grandmothers, my late grandfathers, my mother, my cousins. I’ve not seen that [trauma]. I’ve just not seen it. And it’s not because my family has decided to hide that. We’re rodeo folks and pastors. That is not our narrative, right? Black excellence and Black joy — that is what pushed us forward. That is what we promote in our kitchens. My characters are men that I’ve seen in the world, and sometimes they are men who I want to be. You can show life how it is, but you can also show life how you want it to be. We’ve got trauma like everybody else — yes, that happened to our culture, that is in our bones. It’s true in us. But that trauma is also present in our excellence and our joy, and in many cases, it is a driving factor. We’ve had 100 years of cinema in which that’s all we’ve shown. So let’s just balance out the scales.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.



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