Safety is a sports biography film with an uplifting message of putting family first and the goodness of people but surrounds its protagonist with characters as well-rounded as flat-heads.
This review of Safety (Disney+) is spoiler-free.
Generally, as a rule of thumb, I’ll give anyone a pass who’s responsible for Samuel L. Jackson’s underrated satirical comedy, The Great White Hype. I always wondered what happened to Reginal Hudlin. Here was a risk-taking comedic director who told stories about people of color for much of the 90s when most studios had been too concerned with producing the next Meg Ryan rom-com (or trying to cast Julia Roberts in Harriett). Sadly, the Boomerang and House Party director had to stay in the penalty box for most of the 2000s (being responsible for Ladies Man will do that to you). He hit a career resurgence, though, by producing Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, earning an Academy Award nomination, and then directed the well-received documentary, The Black Godfather. His latest feature film choices, however, are indicative of a man who escaped career purgatory and wants to stay in the game. Playing it safe with biographies like the new Disney Plus drama, Safety.
Don’t get me wrong, the story of Ray McElrathbey (played by Jay Reeves), known as Ray Ray, is a worthy subject matter. He has a lot on his plate at the moment. The star recruit has earned a scholarship to play safety for Clemson University. He is carrying a full course load, wanting to graduate with a degree in psychology. His future comes into question however when his 11-year-old brother, Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson), is left abandoned by his mother because of her ongoing struggles with drug and alcohol abuse.
McElrathbey gained national attention after an article was written about his situation right before the Bowden Bowl (between Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden and son, Clemson coach Tommy Bowden). There is no denying the natural fit the story is in becoming a film. It also touches upon relevant issues of college football players, who are mostly African American, making millions of dollars for schools and organizations lead by white men. Take, for instance, the NCAA, who McElrathbey files for a waiver to allow the school to help with his situation.
If they don’t, Ray Ray will have to drop out of school to take care of his little brother. If he doesn’t drop out, he will have to let his brother stay in foster care until he graduates. The school won’t let him room with him on campus and the NCAA won’t let local churches or even the wife of the Coach Simmons character (played by James Badge Dale) drive Fahmarr to and from school. The innate human nature to help one another has been replaced by cynical tactics that have taken over our basic humanity.
Safety is biography with an uplifting message of putting family first and the goodness of people. The script by Nick Santora (The Most Dangerous Game), though, has been run through the Disney brainwashing machine a few too many times. The result is a film with plenty of clichés and eye-rolling attempts at humor and less human interest than expected. The film’s best scene has Ray Ray confronting his mother, Tonya (The Leftovers‘ Amanda Warren), in a powerful few moments, meeting to discuss signing over custody of his little brother to him. Moments like this make a worthy subject, but there aren’t enough of them and are replaced with the doe-eyed Kaycee (Corrine Fox) taking up much of Ray Ray’s attention.
Safety gets the essence of the McElrathbey story right and Reeves does what he can to make his role interesting when surrounded with characters that are as well rounded as a bunch of flat-heads. Anyone who is a fan of The Blind Side will surely be disappointed because Hudlin’s film lacks that effort’s polish and production value. It is a very safe choice for family viewing, but too tepid and inconsistent to recommend; as inoffensive as that may be.
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