The Sundance Film Festival and IMDb have classified Carey Williams’ Emergency as a comedy, which is a bit misleading. There are funny moments in the film, particularly in the first act, but this is an intense, powerful look at the Black experience and their relationships with police and white fear. The genre might be wrong, but Emergency is a great movie.
Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), a straight-A genius on his way to Princeton for his Ph.D., and Sean (RJ Cyler), a laid-back student with his vape pen glued to his hands unsure of his future, are roommates and best friends. As the school year approaches its end, they look to complete the Legendary Tour, an epic night of partying at seven different houses on campus. Sean has the entire evening planned out, but things quickly go sideways when they get back to their house and there is a white girl passed out on their floor. With no clue how she got there, Kunle, Sean, and their other roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) have no idea what to do. Calling the police is a terrifying option for two Black men and a Mexican man in this situation, so they decide to take matters into their own hands and try to deescalate the situation before it gets out of control.
Williams, who was at the festival last year with his social media adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, R#J, adapted Emergency from his own award-winning short film of the same name and like the short film, this is a snapshot of modern young Black culture. The feature film touches on a lot of themes of Black life, like their relationship with police, white fear, Black legacy, and shows how this affects two black men from all backgrounds. Kunle comes from a family of doctors and is focused on his studies and becoming a successful academic at Princeton. Sean comes from lesser means, with some family members with a criminal background. But regardless of their background, the fear, paranoia, and issues that they deal with being Black men in America are the same.
The brilliance of Emergency comes from its endless tension. If this was a movie about three white guys trying to figure out what to do about a random passed-out girl in their apartment, it would probably end up being pitched as a raucous comedy. But when it is three men of color, the attitude changes. We know these men did nothing wrong and yet, we can’t help feel terrified for the situation these men are in. It feels like they are in an endless lose-lose situation. The relationship between people of color, police, and scared white people is very complicated and one and Emergency shows how complicated it is. It never shies away from asking some tough questions and putting our characters in tough situations.
When the central plot of “what to do with the passed out white girl?” slows down, Emergency is still engaging because of the friendship between Kunle and Sean. Though opposites in almost every way, you believe that Kunle and Sean are best friends. They make jokes like best friends, have each other’s backs like best friends, and they argue like best friends. Much of the credit here belongs to Watkins and Cyler, who give tremendous performances. They have perfect chemistry and both embody their characters. We understand their motivations and why they think and act the way that they do. Regardless of whether we agree or not with some of their actions, we still empathize and sympathize with them as people. These are two impressive performances from two exciting young Black actors.
Emergency is a tense and powerful movie that will have people talking. Donald Elise Watkins and RJ Cyler lead this smart and challenging film that is full of social commentary, heart, and tension.
Emergency made its premiere in the U.S. DRAMATIC section of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
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