“Safety” is a title that works on multiple levels. The new biopic, now streaming on Disney+, centers on the story of Ray McElrathbey, a college football player who made national headlines after he stepped in to help raise his younger brother while attending classes at Clemson University. As a defensive back, safety also happens to be Ray’s position, protecting deep threats as a scholarship athlete while taking care of 11-year-old Fahmarr.
As the film goes on, that title also feels more appropriate in another way. Over two hours, “Safety” looks to present the McElrathbeys’ experience in the least demanding way possible, carefully treading around its central subject matter. Nick Santora’s script begins with Ray already at school, settling into his opening week away from his home in Atlanta. When Ray and Fahmarr’s mother enters a substance abuse counseling program, Ray becomes the only family member left who can provide a stable living situation.
It’s easy to see how Ray’s story became one that could leapfrog from a campus news story to one that eventually yielded segments on national TV shows. College football is one the more regimented areas of American life, one that provides a disproportionate compensation for both the time required and the revenue generated for everyone except those who are playing. To add on a rigorous school schedule and handle the duties of raising a soon-to-be teenager is a lot to ask of anyone.
In “Safety,” getting Fahmarr into his on-campus dorm (and into the communal bathroom away from the eyes of anyone aside from his roommate) becomes something of a goofy amateur heist, one of the back-and-forth moves in the movie’s tonal seesaw. Before long, Ray’s confronted with a choice between continuing his time on the team or ensuring that his brother can go to a nearby school and have his basic needs met.
In the effort to make this an all-ages story of family-based uplift, something gets lost in making it palatable. Set in 2006, “Safety” ends up feeling like a Disney Channel Original Movie that the network might have released around that time. (In case you forget what year this takes place, the “Hey Ya” ringtone and Dem Franchize Boyz/Terror Squad drops are there as reminders.) The romances are perfectly chaste, the laughs come from miscalculated hijinks (in a rush to get ready one morning, wouldn’t you know it, someone puts their pants on backwards), and abstract concepts like Teamwork become more important than actually engaging with real-world concepts.
For a movie with a built-in connection to football, the on-field action takes up a surprisingly small chunk of the movie’s runtime. It’s a shame, considering it’s the part of the movie that has the strongest energy. As beat-by-beat as the movie gets when connecting the dots in Ray’s off-field life, the football scenes show much more imagination. Director Reginald Hudlin doesn’t just draw on the familiar visual language of a football broadcast to go inside these plays. With some onboard POV shots mimicking the view from inside Ray’s helmet, some in-the-huddle hangouts, and sweeping camera moves tracking action as it moves downfield, it’s the kind of in-game feel that more games might have if cameras were no obstacle.
Even though the Clemson coaching staff is largely presented as sage dispensers of football wisdom and moral arbiters above reproach, the always reliable James Badge Dale brings enough wild-card charm to keep (the fictional/composite) Coach Brad Simmons from being one-dimensional. “Safety” also presents Fahmarr as a savvy, precocious kid, something that Thaddeus J. Mixson handles with greater ease than nearly all of this movie’s adult co-stars.
All of that makes the movie’s decision to focus on bureaucracy that much more baffling. The nearest this movie has to an antagonist is one Clemson teammate, a senior who’s overly judgmental of the incoming freshmen on the team. (It’s one way this is closer in spirit to a high-school story than one on a college campus.) That player gets villainized more than the NCAA, the college athletics governing body whose draconian measures have restricted player benefits for decades in the name of amateurism. Bizarrely, as the movie inches towards its intended peak, the main thrust becomes whether or not Ray can properly convince the NCAA that he’s worthy of getting a student-athlete exemption, one that would allow for team staff and their family members to help out with Fahmarr’s meals, housing, and rides to and from school.
“Safety” conveniently never addresses the fact that while his teammates rallies behind him to petition the slightest bit of beneficence from the almighty NCAA, Ray’s head coach was pulling down a seven-figure annual salary (on his way to losing to a 7-5 Kentucky team in the Music City Bowl that year, no less). And surely the sudden existence of this movie has nothing to do with the fact that, just over a year ago, Disney launched an entire network dedicated to the Atlantic Coast Conference, of which Clemson is member.
The overall sheen of much this movie is akin to viral stories about neighborhoods rallying together to pay for someone’s GoFundMe whose insurance wouldn’t cover a preexisting condition. With ESPN poised to take over an even bigger share of the sport’s broadcast rights, it makes perfect sense that “Safety” posits college football as an institution where any perceived inequities are just a matter of misunderstandings or not trying hard enough. The points where “Safety” chooses to be the most triumphant only serve to lend more credence to the outdated system that put restrictions on Ray and Fahmarr’s situation in the first place.
This version of the McElrathbey brothers’ story will surely spread through a streaming audience who likes their football presented free from any outside conflict or complications. Underneath “Safety,” though, there’s a potential for a more nuanced telling. There’s one that doesn’t feel constricted to the single season that Ray saw on-field action. There’s one that also finds room for their mom to be defined as anything other than an addict. The film that exists may fill in some temporary vacuum in a season without capacity-level crowds on Saturday nights and evenings. But those who want something more may have to wait a little longer.
“Safety” is now available to stream on Disney+.