ComingSoon Senior Editor Spencer Legacy spoke with Jessica Knight Henry about Devotion and its portrayal of her grandparents, Jesse and Daisy Brown. The movie is now available on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital.
“Jonathan Majors (Creed III) and Glen Powell (Top Gun: Maverick) star in the epic and inspirational true story of two elite U.S. Navy fighter pilots who helped turn the tide in the most brutal battle in the Korean War: Jesse Brown, the first Black aviator in Navy history and his fellow fighter pilot and friend, Tom Hudner,” reads the film’s synopsis. “Their heroic sacrifices and enduring friendship would ultimately make them the Navy’s most celebrated wingmen.”
Spencer Legacy: What does it mean to your family that J.D. Dillard, the director, wanted them involved in the project and got in touch so early in the process?
Jessica Knight Henry: I think it was very important. Jesse’s story has been held so closely to the family and was honestly just so personal. The thought of a project being pursued without us involved gave us much angst. But because [of] J.D. and the background of his family — his dad being a pilot — it meant so much for him to have us engaged and to really be able to understand the family’s take on this and to walk us through the journey. So it truly meant a lot and it really helped develop the relationship, I think, [with] the entire Devotion team, the cast, the crew. But it really helped us all feel like family and when you’re sharing your family’s personal story, it means even that much more.
When speaking with Jonathan Majors, what really stood out about his approach to learning about Jesse and how he wanted to do his legacy justice in the film?
Jonathan is such an incredible talent and he takes his work so seriously, diving deep into a role and really trying to embody it in a way. We were very, very fortunate to have an opportunity for him to get to meet two of Jesse’s brothers very early on in the process. They weren’t still with us at the time of the film’s completion, so it felt like we had their blessing and the blessing of others. But he dove not only into what’s out there historically about my grandfather, but also making sure that he had those anecdotes from the family and dove deep into the letters.
[He] really tried to make sure that he was bringing Jesse’s character to life in a real multi-dimensional way. Even after the filming has wrapped, we recently found a record of Jesse’s draft card that had never been seen by the family, and we were able to share it with him and he was just blown away. The fact that he was like, “Oh, I recognize his handwriting,” and it meant so much to him. So even after we wrapped, I think the character still sort of means so much and we’re just grateful to have that relationship with him.
What was it like to go on set and see the movie being shot?
That was really surreal. I had an opportunity to go down a few times with various family members and from understanding how a movie is made, which was like completely over my head. But from what it took to get those big warbirds in there and seeing the planes — and honestly, the set design was amazing. You’re out on this runway on the set and getting to see the level of detail and work that goes into it. But when you see the film come together … I was with my nephew recently, and he was like, “Oh my gosh, the scene where they’re out on the bridge!” And it happened to be like a crazy weather day in Georgia, so it worked out so perfectly. So just being like an insider … it was really like being at Disneyland or something, but getting it to all come see it all come together was really great.
Your grandmother, Daisy, is so lovingly portrayed by Christina Jackson. How important was it to have her story shown as well?
So I will tell everybody — the single most important character that the Devotion team had to get right was the portrayal of Daisy. With my grandfather, he was killed when my mom wasn’t even two years old, so we’ve kind of always had an idea of who he was and based off of folks that knew him, but that personal relationship really wasn’t there. But it was such a different story with with Daisy. I grew up with her. She was one of my biggest role models and I am honored to be able to carry on the family legacy and it’s a lot of how I saw her carry herself. So it was so important that they get that right. I could not imagine a better actress to come and play my grandmother.
I think Christina is someone that just has such a sheer amount of emotional intelligence, and she brought that and the care and wit and funniness and all of the things and all of the stories and all the conversations that we’ve had — everything, from seeing a nail polish color that I mentioned that my grandmother loved in a very casual conversation and I see her wearing it in the film. So it was those little tiny details of just being heard and being listened to. But I think, beyond that, it was so important for Daisy to be portrayed in the film because Jesse was the first, but Daisy was also the first. I think the idea of a military spouse and that support and what it means to go through that and for her to also be alone in pioneering that in many, many ways … we’re glad that a glimpse of her story was able to be shared on the screen as well.
Devotion received a lot of praise, particularly for Majors’ performance, but what does it mean for millions to be learning about your grandfather’s story?
It’s really daunting. I think we always had an idea that Jesse and Tom’s story was worthy of having this sort of acclaim to it, but they’re your family members and, again, we had held the story so close, so I certainly felt a lot of anxiety about, “What does this mean when more people know about the story?” But to just bring awareness to the heroes that they were and, honestly, the inspiration that they bring … I’ve been so fortunate over the course of my life, and now even more that Devotion is in the ecosystem, of people coming up to me and telling me just how much it meant for my grandfather and what he did and how it inspired them and now they’re a pilot, or they are leading this career now due to the sacrifice that he made.
I think it’s an important story for our country — particularly at a time where things are are kind of fraught and so divisive. Being able to share that on the world stage has been really, really important. They are beyond deserving. They are such humble individuals that had a passion and a dream. I think a lot of people can relate to just wanting to go out and do what you love.
I imagine the first time you got to see the movie, it must have been quite overwhelming. What was it like for you and your family to take that all in to see that playing out on the big screen?
I cry every single time I see the film, but that first time we got to take it in was amazing, because it had been just a lot of emotions and such a long journey — not even just film production, but before that. Obviously having the book, Devotion by Adam Makos, and a lot of time that we’ve gotten to spend with the Hudner family … it was almost a release. At that point you knew, “It’s going to be in the world. It’s okay, it’s great.”
But they did such a good job and it’s emotional in a good way. It’s cathartic and truly inspiring in so many ways. But I was recently, flying and got to see it on a plane for the first time, which I think is a fitting way for Devotion to be consumed. But knowing a million times what’s going to happen — and knowing the history and it’s based off historical events — but it’s still such a gut punch and a reminder of what we lost when we lost Jesse. But, just so beautiful to have it memorialized in film.
Even though the movie takes place in the 1950s, the themes and takeaways are still so prevalent and important. Can you speak to the importance of that story being told today?
Absolutely. I think there are a number of themes throughout Devotion, but the inspiration and just, again, being able to come from humble beginnings, to dare to dream for something big despite whatever challenges you have or may overcome. The thought of leaving this lasting legacy and what it means for us to embrace our history and our past. But there’s so many inspiring figures and the way that the commonality and the threads … there’s more that brings us together than than separates us.
So I hope that that folks will recognize that and that there is a lot of real value in knowing our full history and all of the individuals that contributed to that fabric. Devotion is such a good portrayal of that and getting to see what they did at that time, to overcome the conventions and the norms to create a true brotherhood — this friendship — and the heroes that they were. And they did it all for a country that they knew could be better and was striving to be better. So it’s an amazing American story and we’re glad to be a small part of it and that the fabric of that gets to live on.