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New film 'Devotion' highlights an improbable friendship during Korean War


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: A recently released film provides a new reference point for the term wingmen.

"Devotion" is the true story of two Naval aviators' loyalty and heroism during the often overlooked Korean War.

Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports on the pilots' bond and the story that's taken on added relevance today for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Mike Cerre: An unforgettable true story from the forgotten war in Korea, two Naval aviators from distinctly different backgrounds demonstrating what it means to be wingmen in war and in life.

Glen Powell, Actor: Try to keep up.

Jonathan Majors plays Ensign Jesse Brown, the Navy's first Black fighter pilot, by way of a Mississippi sharecropper family. He was the first African American killed in the Korean War.

Jonathan Majors, Actor: This man didn't just pull himself up from his bootstraps. He pulled himself up from his bootstraps and put himself in the sky.

Glen Powell, who played Hangman in the recent "Top Gun" movie, plays Lieutenant J.G. Thomas Hudner Jr. from a prosperous New England family and elite prep school, who turned down Harvard to go to the Naval Academy and later became an aviator.

Hudner received the first Medal of Honor of the Korean War for intentionally crashing his plane in a futile effort to rescue Jesse Brown, his wingman man, after he was shot down behind enemy lines.

Glen Powell: Really, at the end of the day, it's, what is the definition of a wingman? And how far are you willing to go for the guys next year?

Mike Cerre: Glen Powell is also the film's executive producer, having option the film rights to the book "Devotion" by Adam Makos prior to his "Top Gun" involvement.

Powell met with the real Tom Hudner Jr. just before the pilot died at age 93.

Glen Powell: The thing that I took away from meeting him was how much Jesse Brown means to him, now 72 years later, and that friendship was something he thought about every day.

And I think, as you have seen today, it's the Brown family and the Hudner family are tied together for life.

Speaker: So, this area was the Black Wall Street of Hattiesburg.

Mike Cerre: Jesse Brown's grandchildren and Tom Hudner's son worked together to make sure the film accurately reflected the uniqueness of their personal bond, given their backgrounds and our times.

Jonathan Majors: You know how tired I am of people trying to help me while looking down on me?

Glen Powell: I am not looking down on you. What do you want me to do?

Jonathan Majors: Just be my wingman.

Thomas Hudner III, Son of Thomas Hudner: Well, I certainly think their relationship was unique.

Mike Cerre: Thomas Hudner's son believes Jesse Brown was his father's first Black friend, coming from his far more privileged New England background, compared to Jesse Brown's in rural Mississippi, where he worked in the fields with his father and was frequently taunted.

Thomas Hudner III: Certainly, dad's baseline. I think, approach to any relationship, and certainly to a wingman, was someone shows their character through their actions and behavior, not through the color of their skin.

Mike Cerre: The two pilots were recently inducted into the Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola Naval Air Station, where they first trained, and where film director J.D. Dillard's family was once stationed.

J.D. Dillard, Director: My dad was a Naval aviator 30 years behind Jesse, and the story was quite similar for him, is that this is something that he had to predominantly do alone.

And there's a very specific isolation that comes with that. So, of course, you had Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, but the benefit of what they had was community.

Mike Cerre: Vintage Navy Corsair fighter planes and an aircraft carrier mockup were used to set the scene in 1950, as the pilot squadron prepared for the Korean War, which coincided with the desegregation of the U.S. military after World War II.

Actor: It's good to know the man you're flying with, see what they're fighting for.

Actress: What are you fighting for?

Pamela Brown Knight, Daughter of Jesse Brown: After he died, she went back to school. She went to Alcorn State University, she became a teacher.

Mike Cerre: Jesse Brown's daughter Pamela was only 2 when he died and never got to know him. But his legacy lives large here at the African American Military History Museum in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, his hometown.

"Devotion"s cast members and director came to Hattiesburg for a reception and special screening of the film for Brown's family, friends, and the entire town, where Jesse Brown has long since been recognized as a favorite son.

Frederick Leggett, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Resident: To know that somebody like him is — back in that time, when he went in, in the military, he was one of the first African American pilots. And he was good too.

Mike Cerre: Hattiesburg's historic Saenger Theater is where Ensign and Daisy Brown used to frequent in the '40s and '50s. But, back then, they couldn't use the front door. They were escorted to a side alley and to a side door that led up to a balcony into what was called the colored section.

Well, that door and that policy are long gone. And for tonight's special screening of "Devotion," the Browns are getting the front row.

Greg Langford, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Resident: What happened in the past happened. You can't make it go away. You can't erase it. So you have got to embrace it and grow on — you got to grow from that experience.

Jessica Knight Henry, Granddaughter of Jesse Brown: I am so grateful to the city, and I'm so happy that we get to celebrate this and really lift up what this community has meant.

Mike Cerre: For Jesse Brown's granddaughter Jessica, the film has been worth the wait, since the film's basic story of friendship without cultural boundaries is just as timely today.

Jessica Knight Henry: There's a great line in the movie after we experience Jesse's loss where they say, the world needed Jesse Brown.

And the world needs Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner's story very specifically right now. I think the level of divisiveness that we experience in this country, it's important to see them overcome that.

Mike Cerre: For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Mike Cerre in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Amna Nawaz: And you can see more Canvas stories later tonight on PBS, when I host the final episode of this season's "Beyond the Canvas." The show features interviews and profiles with some of the brightest stars in music, writing and more.

Tonight's episode focuses on the power of words.

On this episode of "Beyond the Canvas," we witness the power of words.

Speaker: I use poetry as a vehicle to reach young people.

Speaker: Black people built this house of country music. So to have country open the door, I think we're set up for a real homecoming.

Speaker: This is the first book I have ever written in real time. It was the most difficult piece of writing I have ever done.

Speaker: Country music has a vortex. It has a culture. And there are country queers.

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