The university takes center stage in Disney+’s latest sports biopic, lacquering on sentimentality as much as it does team spirit.
At first glance, Disney+’s latest sports biopic Safety is a film about a particularly extraordinary individual. It is, after all, about a young man who faces insurmountable odds and comes out on top. But while its subject is a compelling protagonist, the real focus of the movie is an extraordinary community.
Directed by Reginald Hudlin, Safety is based on the inspiring true story of Clemson footballer Ray McElrathbey (Jay Reeves). The young man’s athletic and academic performance managed to get him a scholarship to the University, but the transition to collegiate life proves to be a bit of a struggle. Trying to manage an eighteen credit course load and grueling football training has him so busy he doesn’t even have time to answer texts from his 11-year-old brother, Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson).
Ray can’t ignore Fahmarr for long when he discovers that their mother Tanya (Amanda Warren) is in rehab for thirty days. Rather than let Fahmarr languish in the foster care system while she gets clean, Ray sneaks his younger brother into his football dorm that is for players only. When Tanya’s rehab stay is increased indefinitely, the fiercely independent Ray must turn to his Clemson family for assistance. But when school officials begin questioning if these offers of assistance count as a form of favors or payment, Ray must convince the NCAA to allow a waiver so he can receive the help he needs.
McElrathbey’s story feels tailor-made for Disney’s brand of feel-good sports flicks, and Safety fits in nicely with classics like Remember the Titans and Miracle. Hudlin and writer Nick Santora have no reservations about pulling your heartstrings, with a teary-eyed moment coming in almost every ten minutes.
These sentimental scenes are most prominent with the team’s brotherly interactions with Ray and Fahmarr. Most of them are par for the course: the teammates demand to be punished along with Ray when the coaches discover Fahmarr, they help Fahmarr with his schoolwork, and (of course) the whole team is there to support Ray in his NCAA hearing. However, the most touching interaction between the teammates and the McElrathbey brothers is a scene where the footballers sneak into Fahmarr’s school to watch the youngster at his first dance. It’s a moment that’s as funny as it is charming.
These scenes are bolstered by the strength of the leads. Reeves plays Ray with a mix of tenderness and tenacity with an underlying anger and frustration that comes out when things go wrong. Mixson is a talented young actor who is both vulnerable and aggressive and he manages to make Fahmarr a realistic kid without being annoying. It would have been easy to make the McElrathbeys paragons of perfection, instead, they are well-rounded characters dealing with the harshness of their situation appropriately.
While people who aren’t football aficionados will like Safety, the fans will love it.
Less well-rounded are the supporting cast, who often feel like they were plucked out of a bin full of sports flick stock characters. Ray’s love interest, Kaycee (Corrine Foxx) is the typical “sporty girl” who often feels sidelined by the rest of the story. She even fulfills the cliche of being friends with Ray’s on the field rival, Keller (Miles Burris), who serves as a mild antagonist until they inevitably become friends. Worst off is Ray’s roommate, Daniel (Hunter Sansone) whose introduction scene has him leaning into so many Italian stereotypes it felt like I was watching a Disney sitcom rather than a feature film. Thankfully, the actors manage to breathe life into these one-note characters.
While the filmmakers don’t do much to subvert the genre, Safety never feels stale or boring. It moves at a brisk pace without feeling saggy even though it passes the two-hour mark. This is helped by the fact that it isn’t bogged down with exposition. The film starts with Ray being thrust into the world of Clemson football, letting the audience feel overwhelmed with him as he adjusts. We aren’t told about Fahmarr’s situation until about fifteen minutes in, and even then we aren’t treated to lengthy flashbacks or explanations like we might be in other movies. Hudlin and Santora’s determination to keep Safety in the present gives it a sense of urgency and vitality.
This vitality culminates into the only football game in the film. Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut utilizes handheld camerawork to put you into the POV of the players. The result is an exciting and action-packed sequence that’s even more impressive when you learn that it was filmed during a twenty-minute halftime of an actual Clemson football game with 80,000 fans in the stands. It was so good that even a football hater like me was enthralled.
But while people who aren’t football aficionados will like Safety, the fans will love it. After a decade of courting the nerds, Disney has found a way to exploit an athletic IP. Because while Clemson is a highly regarded academic institution, it’s football team is a money-making brand. It’s alumni and fans bring devotion and passion that is similar to Disney fans (as someone who’s partner was a mascot for both Clemson and Disney, I can attest to this), and the film is stuffed to the brim with enough Clemson imagery and trivia to please any Tiger.
While the abundance of Clemson icons is inevitable given the setting, the film does at times feel like an ad for the university. Just about every scene that takes place on campus was filmed on campus, and no institution gives that type of access without script approval. So while I believe that the camaraderie of the Clemson community is genuine (I’ve certainly drunk the sweet tea), there are times when the reverence the characters give a school can feel a bit propagandistic.
That said, there are worse things to idolize than a university, and McElrathbey’s story is one that’s important to tell. Not only is his work ethic and perseverance commendable (he graduated within three years while playing football and raising Fahmarr), but I also appreciate Safety’s message that even the most exceptional person needs the help of a community to succeed. Hopefully, we can all build a community like that outside of Clemson.
Safety is currently streaming on Disney+.