Reginald Hudlin, the director of the Disney movie “Safety,” which makes its premier on Disney+ on Friday, made a different kind of football movie. It’s a story of a football player, but what he does on the field is of little consequence in the story he has to tell.
“Safety” is the story of Ray-Ray McElrathbey, who played football at Clemson University in South Carolina. Football is a big part of McElrathbey’s life, but it is how his relationship with his younger brother develops that tells a bigger part of his story.
McElrathbey decides to raise and care for his brother when their mother enters a drug rehabilitation program. McElrathbey, who was a freshman at Clemson when he took in his brother, puts his football career and education in jeopardy.
That is where the movie stops being about football and more about family. Hudlin said “Safety” is in the pantheon of other football movies, but his movie takes a unique look at how football teams can become surrogate families and focus on more than winning football games.
“There are so many great sports movies going back to ‘Brian’s Song,’ ‘Remember the Titans,’ ‘Friday Night Lights.’ You know if you do it well, you can really resonate with audiences,” Hudlin said. “The trick is: What new do you have to say? Fortunately we had a true story. It was really invaluable to have Ray involved in the entire process.”
McElrathbey had a significant role in telling his family’s story. Jay Reeves plays McElrathbey and Thaddeus J. Mixson II plays his little brother Fahmarr in the movie. The movie is more about how the brothers develop their relationship than it is about football. Having the real McElrathbey on set made telling that story much easier and authentic.
“And having Ray on set, for my sake, the sake of the cast, we could all talk to him and be a touchstone and say what new do we have to say, what new do we have to contribute to this rich genre of motion pictures,” Hudlin said. “That’s what makes me happy. Everyone who sees ‘Safety’ says I like this movie. It’s part of a tradition, but Ray’s story is unique, it has something special to say and that resonates with everyone who sees it no matter who they are no matter where they are from.”
“Safety” has all the elements of a football movie. It touches on competition. McElrathbey is fighting for a spot on the team and the chance to travel with the team on road games.
The movie focuses on McElrathbey’s strength. He is put under extreme tests, both physically and emotionally. He has to prove himself on the football field and be a beacon of strength emotionally for his little brother. That balance is complicated at best.
The movie shows how adept McElrathbey is at coordination, by balancing football, classes, family and friends. The coordination McElrathbey displays goes far beyond athletic ability.
But “Safety” is different than other football movies for a variety of reasons. It also focuses on the social dynamic of being a college student from a broken home.
It shows how communities are built and how much strength they can create to support a struggling member of that community.
It shows how teamwork is as valuable a quality off the football field as it is on it.
Hudlin said he related to McElrathbey’s story because he experienced some of the same things when he was growing up in Illinois.
“I really related to Ray’s story. I’m from a small town in the Midwest, all Black, economically deprived, where it takes a lot of energy to create opportunity for yourself,” Hudlin said. “Ray had it tougher than most. He’s a guy who made a way out of no way in a situation where failure was not an option. I think that’s a really important message.”
“Safety” delivers a number of messages. The most important might be to never give up on family, even if the family is a football team or college roommates or coaches and teachers. Hudlin said it is a lesson that is universal.
“I knew it was especially important for the times we are living in,” Hudlin said. “Because now we have a country that is really torn apart. What Ray represents, he represents integrity. He succeeded while maintaining a focus on education, a focus on excellence, and most importantly taking care of his family. Those are values we all think are important, I don’t care who you are or where you’re from. We can come together focusing on those values. I think that starts to heal, it rebuilds our society.”
Safety premiers on Disney+ December 11, 2020