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

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

The text from my mom said that they were coming to visit set from “3/16-4/18.” Presuming a typo, I was surprised to hear that my parents were only visiting for two days. Given we’d spent 12 years as a Navy family — my father is a former naval flight officer — I thought they might want to spend more time seeing the story of Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first Black aviator, come to life on the set of Devotion. I texted her back, mildly disappointed about their short visit, but my mom reaffirmed the dates, “3/16-4/18.” They were coming for a month — far more than I ever expected, and admittedly far longer than I initially desired, but ultimately far too short of a time I’ll forever cherish.

My first memories are of my father, with his visor down and microphone pressed against his lips, strapped to the seats of fighter planes. I realized that my childhood obsession with helmeted, fearless and daring characters stemmed from this film’s rollout. My dad was always a contemporary of these swaggering, mysterious heros, from Batman to Boba Fett. He was a father who made me more excited about my parents coming to work day than any other holiday.

My dad gave me more than just an aesthetic interest. He also taught me a fierce commitment to your dreams. My dad lost his father when he was just a teenager. He was then taken to the Willow Grove Naval Air Station, which is a small, defunct base just outside Philadelphia, for an air show. Nearing the end, the headliner, the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration team, Blue Angels, roared to start their performance. Six McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms took off, formed an incredible diamond formation above the crowd, and my father instantly decided that one day he would fly in those blue jets. The reality of the task ahead and the fact that there had never been a Black aviator in that role didn’t hinder my dream. It was a dream that was born.

My dad became a Blue Angel fifteen years later.

Although I won’t be able to talk to him about his journey, I do know that he made my parents dream-enablers by achieving his goal. Even though a dream might not have been financially supported, it was supported without fail emotionally. As I grew up, I realized how fortunate I was to have been raised in a home that valued dreams.

My goal was to become a filmmaker.

It took me a few days for my parents to get used to being on set. It’s hard to be strong, determined, and decisive for your crew. And there you see Mom & Dad, looking behind the monitors, their headphones on. Suddenly, I was back in grade school — the two of them watching from the sidelines of a game with that supportive thumbs-up as if to say, “You’ve got it!” Early on in their visit, I made the mistake of letting that make me feel small — it producing the 33-year-old’s version of “Mom, could you drop me off down the block?” — but I shouldn’t have, because small is not something they’ve ever made me feel. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by pride when you look at this experience through their eyes. Devotion, in a sense, is the fruit of their love, patience, support and history.

Like my dad, Jesse Brown found his dream in the fields below an air show. Daisy Brown, Jesse’s wife was like my mom and was the co-conspirator for a dream. She also tirelessly dedicated herself to the less-celebrated task, raising good people. Devotion was my parents’ story, too.

My dad was not the one I had in mind to be hired for the film. Although he is credited as a “Navy pilot technical consultant”, I felt most connected with him during the quieter parts of the film. The internal, emotional details were far more important than technical aspects. During lunch or after-work chats, we talked about family, trust and isolation, as well as the steady motor of our own drive. These conversations were the substance that filled in the gaps between the lines. I felt like I could relate to the experience of the characters I was portraying. That was the greatest gift of the film, my time with my dad. We had conversations that I didn’t know we needed — conversations I can’t imagine my life without, despite the thrill, pressure, and anxiety of production.

So, as Devotion takes off and sets its course for the horizon, I’m realizing there may be no coming back from this. My dad will support me in any dream I have, but I think I’ve made his favorite movie — it’s, in part, about him.

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

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