There is a scene in Reginald Hudlin’s Safety where young Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson), while observing the video research portion of his older brother’s football practice, notices a subtle tell sign of the opposing team’s running back. Whenever the player pulls on his jersey it indicates that he will be getting the ball on the play. In many ways Safety telegraphs its own beats by following a well-travelled playbook.
Based on the true story, the film focuses on Ray Ray McElrathbey’s (Jay Reeves) challenging freshman year at Clemson University. Attempting to balance the hectic rigger that comes with being a student athlete, Ray Ray’s life is turned upside down when he learns that his 11-year-old brother has been living on his own and their mother (Amanda Warren) is back in jail. With their mother given 30-days in rehab, and not willing to let Fahmarr go into the foster care system, Ray Ray makes the decision to take his brother back to Clemson with him. Considering that his scholarship could be revoked if the school finds out that he is hiding his brother in his dorm, Ray Ray employs the help of his roommate and teammates to keep his secret.
Of course, keeping a secret of this magnitude becomes increasingly more difficult when his mother makes great strides in rehab and it is recommended that she stays longer to complete the program. As his coaches (James Badge Dale and Matthew Glave) and members of the community grow more aware of Ray Ray’s situation, questions begin to surface about whether the support he receives violates the collage football rules regarding athletes not receiving gifts of any sort.
Given that its narrative involves a community coming together to help a football player overcome adversity, it is easy to assume that Safety is simply another in a long line of films like The Blind Side. Films that perpetuate the white savior trope by highlighting upwardly mobile families extending a helping hand to the well-meaning black athletes raised on the wrong side of the tracks. Fortunately, unlike those films, Hudlin ensures that Ray Ray and Fahmarr never become passengers in their own story.
Keeping the brothers in the driver’s seat, and exploring the emotional tension between them, Hudlin’s film highlights the way love and sacrifice can strengthen even the most strained family bonds. The great chemistry between Reeves and Mixson maintains one’s interest even when the film is coasting from one formulaic beat to the next. Their bond off the field is what causes us to care about what happens to Ray Ray on it.
While Hudlin throws a few audibles into the mix from a stylistic point, including frequently rotating his camera to emphasize the hectic cycle of the life of a student athlete, the film plays things rather safe. Walking a fine line at times, gingerly avoiding any misstep that will cause it to stumble into a feature length advertisement for Clemson University, Safety misses the opportunity to truly explore the hypocrisy of the NCAA’s approach to is athletes. College football programs generate so much revenue for their schools, and coaches are highly paid, yet the harshest restrictions are reserved for the players. Something as simple as Fahmarr accepting a ride to school, which is an hour walk otherwise, from the coach’s wife can be deemed a potential expellable offense.
Though Safety could have used more overall bite, the charm of the two leads does win one over in the end. Reinforcing the importance of family and community, Hudlin reminds us that sometimes it takes a village to help people through difficult periods in their lives.