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.

Photos and videos of my father strapped snugly to the seats of fighter jets, mirrored visor down and his microphone pressed firmly against his lips, are among the first images that I really remember. During the rollout of this film, I’ve started to realize that this is probably where my childhood obsession with daring and fearless helmeted characters comes from. From Batman to Boba Fett, I’d always felt like my dad was a contemporary among these swaggering, mysterious heroes. He was a dad that made me the only kid more excited by parents coming to career day than any of our holidays.

Beyond the aesthetic interest, there was something else that my dad gave me — a fervent commitment to the pursuit of your dream. When my dad was freshly a teenager, he lost his father very unexpectedly. In the summer that followed, he was taken to an air show at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station, a small, now-defunct base outside Philadelphia. Nearing the end of the show, the headliners roared above to begin their performance — the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels. Six McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms took to the sky, formed an incredibly precise diamond formation over the crowd, and, in an instant, my father decided that someday he’d be in those blue jets himself. That dream wasn’t burdened by the reality of the difficulty that lay ahead or by the fact that no Black aviator had ever held that role. It was simply a dream born.

Fifteen years later, my dad became a Blue Angel.

While there’s so much about his path that I’ll never be able to speak to, I do know that in reaching his goal, it made both my parents dream-enablers. Even if a dream was not understood or able to be supported financially, it was, without fail, supported emotionally. Only as I’ve gotten older have I grasped how lucky I was to grow up in a home where dreams were taken seriously.

And mine was to be a film­maker.

It took a few days to adjust to having my parents on set. You’re trying to be strong, determined and decisive for your crew, pushing forward through a film unlike anything you’ve made before … and there you see Mom and Dad, beaming behind the monitors with 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. To look at this experience from their point of view is to be overwhelmed with pride. Devotion, in a sense, is the fruit of their love, patience, support and history.

Jesse Brown, like my dad, found his dream in the fields beneath an air show. Jesse’s wife, Daisy, like my mom, was the co-conspirator of a dream while tirelessly devoted to the under-celebrated task of raising good people. Devotion was my parents’ story, too.

I never planned on hiring my dad on the film. While he’s credited as a “Navy pilot tech consultant,” I connected most with him over the quieter moments of the film. Far more important than the technical aspects were the internal, emotional details. Our chats over lunch or after wrap were about family, trust, isolation and the steady motor of one’s own drive. The substance of these conversations is what filled 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 the largest gifts of the film: the time spent with my dad. Behind the pressure, thrill and anxiety of production, we had conversations I never knew we needed to have — conversations I now can’t imagine my life without.

So, as Devotion takes off and sets its course for the horizon, I’m realizing there may be no coming back from this. I know my dad will stand by me with any dream that I have, but I suspect I’ve already made his favorite film — because it is, in part, a film about him.

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

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