The Los Angeles premiere of “Devotion,” starring Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell, served as both a salute to the legacy and lineage of Korean War heroes Jesse L. Brown, the first African American Navy aviator, and Thomas Hudner, his devoted wingman, as well as a celebration of the familial bonds forged during the shoot.
“This movie, in so many ways, is a family effort,” director JD Dillard said, introducing the film’s cast and crew before a packed house inside the Regency Village Theatre in Westwood on Tuesday night. “We all moved together like the boys shipping off to war to make this movie.”
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Dillard then asked the few dozen descendants of Brown and Hudner in attendance to stand for a round of applause. It’s overwhelming to share these moments with the families, Dillard told Variety on the red carpet, but, he added, “There’s no other way to do it.”
“My job, among a few things, was to spread this story to more people, and in the process of doing that, make sure we hold intact what their legacies are,” Dillard explained. “This film is the answer to that promise.”
In keeping with the family theme, Dillard was accompanied by his own father, Bruce Dillard, a trailblazer, like Brown, who became the second African American pilot to fly with the Navy’s Blue Angels. For the premiere, the director also requested that another family member be included — Brown himself.
“One of the first things I did after we wrapped is tell the producers I think we need Jesse’s Corsair [airplane, at the premiere],” Dillard said, of the vintage plane flown by Majors in the film — painted with Brown’s number, 211 – which was parked at the top of the red carpet.
“Jesse being the furthest out of our lives, it just felt like the right thing to honor him in that way,” Dillard explained (Brown was killed in action during the Korean War). “I’m really touched that we were able to get that plane down here.”
Executing that mission took some effort. Black Label Media, which produced the movie, worked with the film’s aerial coordinator Kevin LaRosa II to get the plane flown to Los Angeles and towed to Westwood for the premiere. There it made the perfect backdrop for a poignant photo op with the cast (which also includes Christina Jackson as Brown’s wife Daisy, plus Thomas Sadoski, Joe Jonas, Spencer Neville, Nick Hargrove and Daren Kagasoff, portraying the airmen who made up Brown and Hudner’s squadron, the “Flying 32s”) posing with Tom Hudner III (Hudner’s son) and Jessica Knight Henry (Brown’s granddaughter).
Powell served as an executive producer on the film, which hits theaters on Nov. 23, and built a close relationship with the family of the man he portrayed. After his father recommended the book on which the movie is based — “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Brotherhood and Sacrifice,” by Adam Makos — Powell pursued the film rights. To get Hudner’s blessing, the actor flew to the aviator’s home, where they sat in his office talking about his friendship with Brown and watching footage of the Corsair planes they flew.
“I remember exactly where I was when I make that promise,” the actor said of Hudner, who died in 2017. “I said, if you give me the rights to your life, I promise I’ll do this right. I just know he’d be proud of this movie.”
Sharing the evening with both the Hudners and Browns was a culmination of that team effort and collaboration through the filmmaking process, Powell said. “I feel like what tonight represent for me is what two great men did together, and the fact that it’s built, over 70 years, into this — two families experiencing this together, seeing their story told on the big screen — it just doesn’t get any cooler.”
Well, the only way the moment could’ve been more cooler — though extremely dangerous — would’ve been for someone to land it on the streets of Westwood for the event.
“You didn’t see me fly that thing?” Powell teased. “Camera phones are never there when you need them.”
To note, Powell does have his pilot’s license, as well as a special commendation from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. (“Devotion” marks the third time the actor has played a Navy aviator, following “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Hidden Figures,” where he portrayed John Glenn.) Likewise, Majors has plans to follow Powell’s lead and learn to fly for real.
“I’ve just got 27 hours. I’ve got some work to do,” Majors said, explaining that you need about 150 hours to be certified and he’s admittedly a little tied up at the moment.
Honestly, Majors’ star couldn’t possibly be rising faster. Over the weekend, audiences who went to see “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” were greeted by not one, not two, but three trailers for upcoming movies starring Majors (“Devotion,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “Creed III”). The anomaly was a talking point on Twitter, and even though he doesn’t have an account, the actor was privy to the chatter, admitting that “a few people” reached out.
“The highlight is probably my older sister Monica, how emotional she was about it,” Majors shared. “I, too, was emotional. It’s a long way from Dallas.”
Like Dillard and Powell, Majors had family on his mind at the premiere, especially his chosen one. “It’s so funny because I got to the carpet and I saw Sam Jaeger — he’s my best friend [Jaeger co-starred in Majors’ first Hollywood project, the 2017 miniseries ‘When We Rise’],” Majors said. “Then, right behind him, is Michael B. Jordan. He literally just came in to show some love, give me a hug, take a photo, and now he’s going back to work on our film [‘Creed III’].”
Then, standing over by the Corsair — “which is appropriate,” Majors noted — he shared a special moment with Hudner III. “I just had a real chat, probably the only real chat, I’ve had with Tom Hudner’s son, and he just spoke some real, straight shit to me,” the actor shared. “He said he learned a lot about his father by seeing the portrayal of Jesse. He goes, ‘I see why my dad loved this guy.’ That’s super sweet.”
Speaking with Variety, Hudner III and Henry also sang the actors and filmmakers’ praises.
“We lost Jesse when he was so young, so I never got to meet him,” Henry said. “Getting to meet him on screen, in this way, was just beautiful. There was something about getting to see the embodiment of him and my grandmother [Daisy] in those private moments. So much care was taken to get things right, to make sure they hit all the right notes, because with any family stories, people have a lot of opinions.”
Hudner noted that Powell nailed his father’s understated nature of “capability and confidence,” evoking the way his father was “always looking out for the person around him and not so concerned with his own wellbeing.”
His father also would’ve found the red-carpet experience to be “completely wild and surreal and a bit overwhelming,” Hudner added with a chuckle. “My dad was such an understated guy, a humble guy, and always sort of shied away from attention, so this would be truly a ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ [moment], and he would sort of wonder what all the fuss was about. He would be truly pleased and grateful that this movie is bringing Jesse’s story to a much wider audience.”
Similarly, Jonas portrays Marty Goode, another airman in the squadron, and was introduced to his grandson at the premiere.
“It was an honor to meet him. I didn’t really know what to say. I just said, ‘Thank you for sharing him with the world,’” Jonas recalled. “I got a lot of stuff from the family — they shared videos and photos – and that helped me get into character.”
“It’s trippy to be back here. I was here with my brothers [Nick and Kevin Jonas] a couple years ago to do something completely different,” he added, alluding to the premiere of the Jonas Brothers’ 2019 documentary “Chasing Happiness.” Just then, he spotted his parents Paul and Denise Jonas, who snapped a cell phone photo of their son chatting with reporters ahead of his dramatic film debut.
“A lot of the guys have their families here. I think this movie means a little bit more to us than some of the other projects we’ve done in our past. This movie has a lot of heart,” Jonas said.
Sadoski, who plays Dick Cevoli, the squadron’s commanding officer, couldn’t have agreed more, explaining that it’s so easy to get caught up in the critical reviews or box office returns in the entertainment business, but in this case, there’s something much greater to focus on.
“In this film, the thing that means the most to me is whether or not the Cevoli family feels that I did justice…” Sadoski said, fighting back the tears that threatened to spill over as he spoke. “To, to their grandfather, who served and served admirably and served beautifully, and was largely forgotten by history. He has a post office named after him in Warwick, Rhode Island, and I just felt a great weight of responsibility and honor.”