[Interview] ‘SAFETY’ director Reginald Hudlin talks heart-filled challenges

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

SAFETY takes its cues from the best kinds of “sports films” in that its focus lies on the emotionally rich human interest side of its true life tale. Back in 2006, Clemson University football safety Ray “Ray-Ray” McElrathbey (Jay Reeves) was called to do the extraordinary when his 11-year-old brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson) needed care. Ray, his teammates and the community pulled together to help them triumph over adversity. It’s just the sort of hopeful, inspirational uplift we can all use right now.

Ray’s story deeply resonated with director Reginald Hudlin on a personal and professional level. At the film’s recent virtual press conference, he said,

“I just really related to Ray’s story. I’m from a small town in the Midwest, all black, economically deprived where it takes a lot of energy to get escape velocity, to create opportunity for yourself.  Ray had it tougher than most. He’s the guy who made a way out of no way and the situation with failure was not an option. That’s a really important message.”

The director is excited to be able to bring the message to the masses.

“Ray represents integrity. He succeeded while maintaining a focus on education, a focus on excellence, which in his case was on the playing field, and most importantly, taking care of his family. Those are values that we all think of important, I don’t care who you are or where you’re from. So if we can come together focusing on those values, I think that starts to heal and rebuild our society.”

One of the most difficult shots in the film wasn’t the game sequences that involved crowds and players exerting massive amounts of energy. It was the rotating shots in the dorm room once Ray is settling into life on the Clemson campus. Hudlin credits the innovative thinking of his DP for that stylized choice.

“I love that shot so much. I’m so proud of it. I really have to give praise to Shane Hurlbut who was cinematographer. He was a real partner in crime in terms of [thinking], ‘Okay, we can shoot these the conventional way. But why would we do that?! Let’s really convey the mindset of these guys, you know, waking up at these ungodly hours and getting up and getting going.’”

It was like a ballet of sorts, involving the cast and crew to accomplish getting the shot correct. He continued,

“We setup this rig that went around. But the trickiest part is we had to move both of the walls to the side. One wall was out and the camera starts, and then, we had to slide that wall back in and move the wall on the other side so that the camera could be there on the go around. This was where a film crew really has to work as a single piece. The camera operators, the riggers, are moving walls and the actors have to ignore all that craziness that’s going on and just act like [they’re] waking up in the morning. It was perfect. A shot like that could take all day. We knocked it out in no time. It was a real credit to the entire cast and crew working in sync.”

Jay Reeves as Ray Ray and Thaddeus J. Mixson II as Fahmarr in SAFETY, exclusively on Disney+.

Hudlin’s ability to achieve the perfect tonal balance was not without training too.

“I make all kinds of movies. I’ve done comedies like HOUSE PARTY and BOOMERANG and I’ve done dramas, like MARSHALL. What I loved about this movie, it was a little bit of everything. I know that if you’re in college, hanging out with your friends, you’re gonna have a good time, there’s gonna be funny incidents. If you’re hanging out with your little brother, up to stuff, you’re gonna have fun. So that’s a natural part of the story we’re telling. I thought that those fun moments helped set up the dramatic moments and vice-a-versa. Life has all those different layers to it.

You have fun and then the rug gets pulled out from under you and suddenly you feel the hardship. There’s no villains. It’s just the unfortunate aspects of that circumstance. So you can’t even get mad at anybody, it’s a bunch of people being forced to do things that they don’t want to do. [It’s] these terrible catch-22’s that they’re all trying to survive. I like that people laugh and then, 10 minutes later, they’re crying.”

Hudlin knew SAFTEY was going to hit those perfect notes after he held a test screening at his home and his guests wept.

“I would have little test screenings and I’d invite friends over, have some food, have some wine. I’d watch them watch the movie. The last 15 minutes, a friend of mine, she was crying for 15 minutes. And I was sitting there going, ‘I’m so happy that I’m actually touching you emotionally, that you care about these characters.’ That’s when I knew that the movie worked and it really made me grateful. If you’re laughing, you’re crying and you’re feeling inspired, then we’ve done our job.”

SAFETY will stream exclusively on Disney+ starting December 11.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.