Today sees the release of Safety on Disney+, and while it isn't one of the many superhero or cosmic-hero projects announced during last night's massive list of upcoming Disney tentpoles, the film centers on a different kind of hero -- former college football player Ray McElrathbey, who had to adopt his young brother while he (Ray) was still in college. When people tried to help out with the stresses and costs of raising a child, McElrathbey caught the ire of the NCAA, who accused him of taking financial kickbacks in exchange for his play at Clemson. The film details this tumultuous period in his life, dramatized by filmmaker and comic book scribe Reginald Hudlin.
Hudlin, who is part of DC's much-anticipated Milestone relaunch, has dozens of film and TV credits to his name. It had been several years between his last wide-release feature film (2002's Serving Sara) and a recent run which include Safety as well as the documentary Black Godfather and the narrative feature Marshall, starring the late Chadwick Boseman. Hudlin, who directed the pilot of Everybody Hates Chris and has done episodes of tons of popular series ranging from Psych and The Office to The Last OG and Bones, said that both the long pause in his feature career, and its recent shape, were very much by design.
"At a certain point, I learned, I was like I'd rather direct a good TV show than a bad movie," Hudlin told ComicBook.com. "Then I took time to be an executive for a while, so I've had this kind of interesting journey. I've written comic books, as you know. Finally I was like, now I can start making the kind of movies I want to make. Marshall was the first step in that, and doing a movie about one of my greatest heroes, then doing the documentary Black Godfather, which again, a man I really long admired, I finally get to tell his story, and now with Safety, three true stories, couldn't be less alike, but what they all have in common is they're really admirable men. I knew that after making Marshall, which was very stately and classic and really inspired by classic courtroom movies – Written on the Wind, I think, is very underrated and I was really inspired by that movie -- but for this movie, I wanted the opposite. I wanted energy, and 'pump it up,' and 'it's football, baby, let's go!' So I created a very different style and energy to it which was just fun."
While he came to the actual film pretty recently, Hudlin told us, he has been aware of it for quite a while, although it wasn't until after Marshall that the idea of directing it himself ended up in play.
"My producer Mark [Ciraldi] had been shepherding this project for 14 years, and couldn't get it made," Hudlin explained. "Then finally when Disney+ popped up, he said 'I think this is the place for it.' They loved the movie, they said yes, and when they looked for a director, he said, 'Why not Reggie?' They sent it to me and when I read it I said, 'are you kidding me?' This movie's got everything. It's got laughs, it's got action, it's got sports, it's got tears, it's got inspiration. So I said, 'let's shoot it.'"
During the course of the film, audiences see Ray primarily as a noble and inspirational figure -- but hardly faultless. There are scenes where he loses his patience, scenes where he makes terrible choices, and scenes where he's downright mean to his (admittedly frustrating) kid brother.
"There's no stakes if the character isn't fully human," Hudlin said of the choice to tell McElrathbey's story with a warts-and-all approach. "Of course you're going ot make mistakes. Of course you're going to be angry or drop the ball. That makes you more scared because you know he's a good person but he's making very relatable mistakes and you go, 'Oh my God, you could fail! I don't know if you can pull this off and you're acting like me. I couldn't do this; how the hell are you going to do it?"
McElrathbey himself approved of the approach, and served as an on-set consultant. While a lot of his job was just getting the actors in shape to convincingly do the football scenes, both the cast and filmmakers would occasionally turn to him when they had a question about the story they were telling.0comments
"That was the great thing about having Ray and meeting him very soon after I got on board and having conversations with him and asking, sometimes very [specific], questions," Hudlin said. "Ray at that point, after 14 years, was sophisticated enough to know [the movie is] not literally 'every moment that happened in my life,' but it's the spirit of what happened. He really kept us on track, making sure that, 'yes, that in essence is accurate,' and if we were wrong, he would politely but firmly let us know we were on the wrong track, which was very helpful."
Safety is now streaming on Disney+.