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East St. Louis roots of filmmaker Reginald Hudlin influenced his Disney movie debut

“I just loved the real-life struggles,” Hudlin said. “I feel like that’s the situation of so many people across the country, but we don’t really see that on film.”
Credit: St. Louis American
'Safety,' Filmmaker and East St. Louis native Reginald Hudlin's debut film with the famed Disney brand, can be streamed via Disney Plus.

ST. LOUIS — Reginald Hudlin knew from the moment he read the script that he had to direct “Safety.”

“I just loved the real-life struggles,” Hudlin said. “I feel like that’s the situation of so many people across the country, but we don’t really see that on film.”

The drama based on the true story of Ray McElrathbey. While attempting to navigate his freshman year as a Clemson University football player, he takes on the added responsibility of raising his 11-year-old little brother because their mother is in the throes of addiction.

“This is a movie that is inspirational,” Hudlin said. “It will make you cry. It will make you laugh – and it will make you want to be a better person.”

“Safety,” which stars Jay Reeves, Thaddeus J. Mixson, Corrinne Foxx and James Badge Dale, is available to stream on Disney Plus. The story reminded Hudlin of his hometown of East St. Louis, not because of the challenges Ray faced, but his capacity to rise above them.

“We deal with addiction. We deal with foster care. We deal will all of these complicated issues,” Hudlin said. “And ultimately, he succeeds because he holds the key values of education, commitment to excellence and family. That’s what gets him through. These are universal values that we can all agree that are some of the most important things.”

Those same values were embedded in Hudlin as he grew up in “The City of Champions.”

“East St. Louis made me who I am,” Hudlin said. “Yes, I went to Harvard. Yes, I lived in Harlem and I work in Hollywood. But the key matrix that shaped me was East St. Louis.”

Credit: St. Louis American
Reginald Hudlin

He discussed the one-of-a-kind cultural richness of his hometown.

“I grew up two doors down from where Ike met Tina,” said Hudlin. “Two doors in the other direction was Brother Joe May, a famous gospel singer.”

The mother of Miles Davis taught at Hudlin’s elementary school. And he spent much of his youth cultivating his love for martial arts and culture at the Katherine Dunham Performing Arts Center.

“From riding my bike, being chased by dogs, chucking rocks, going up on Red Hill to catching two buses to go to downtown St. Louis to go see ‘Enter the Dragon’– all those experiences shaped who I am,” Hudlin said.

Decades later, Hudlin operates as not only a filmmaker, but a key influencer of popular culture. When it debuted 30 years ago, He and his brother Warrington Hudlin’s film “House Party” franchise was among the defining musical films for the hip-hop generation. Three months ago, Hudlin made history as the first-ever African American producer of the Primetime Emmy Awards. But the seed for his pioneering career was planted when as a precocious youth, he navigated through his East St. Louis stomping grounds.

“Ultimately, I’m just doing what I wanted to do since I was 12,” Hudlin said. “I make movies, I make TV shows, I write comic books and I put on concerts and live events. Why? Because it looks like fun. Part of the fun for me is entertaining people and making a difference. That’s why I’m proud of ‘Safety.’ That’s why I’m proud of the stuff I’ve done. That’s always the goal.”

With “Safety,” Hudlin can add helming a Disney movie to his esteemed credentials.

“When we were putting the movie together, we put the Disney logo on there and we were like ‘Oh my God, we made a Disney movie,’” Hudlin said. “It just tripped me out. I was like ‘I really did this.’ We had the ‘When you wish Upon a Star,’ [theme music] but then I put some beats under it. It was like, ‘This is me. Y’all invited me in, but now you are in here with me.’”

Hudlin is thrilled that the subject matter of his debut film with Disney works to dispel misinformation about Black fatherhood.

“The stereotype is that, ‘oh, we don’t take care of our children,’” Hudlin said. “But in fact when you look at the stats and the numbers, Black dads are the most engaged – whether it’s their biological child or someone else’s child."

“Safety” shows a young man stepping up to be a father for his younger brother. It also highlights Ray’s village – including his team – lending support while he assumes such a huge responsibility at such a critical point in his journey as a student athlete.

“He is a freshman in college. When I was a freshman in college, just doing the schoolwork was hard enough,” Hudlin said.

Ray is not only doing the schoolwork, but he’s learning about the sacrifices and commitment level required to play Division 1 football. And then he must tackle the responsibility of fathering his little brother at the same time.

 “That is an impossible set of obligations,” Hudlin said. “But he gets it done, because failure is not an option.  And that’s a hell of a story.”

“Safety” is streaming now on Disney Plus. For more information, visit https://disneyplusoriginals.disney.com/movie/safety.