There are movies that talk of racism and then there are some that just shut the door on your face if you fail to acknowledge its actual repercussions in spite of having experienced it first-hand. Emergency, is the second kind of movie. It both leaves you with a haunting, sinking feeling, and a subtle afterthought. Something that only great films manage to do. Especially when they are born out of a single line of thought, and somehow belong to a crowded genre of college comedies.
Adapted from Carey Williams’s own Sundance-winning short by the same name, Emergency follows a straight-A medical student Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and his always-vaping, slacker best friend Sean (RJ Cyler) as they navigate through the last few days of school before Spring break. Together, they plan to have the most epic night of their lives with a round of parties that constitute their school frat-party tour. They are determined to hit all the possible pit stops on this tour, making them the first black students to do so.
In hindsight, Sean seems to be too dedicated to this agenda, while Kunle is just tagging along – mostly because he doesn’t want to disappoint his best friend before giving him the news that he is going to Princeton. Anyway, before even their night could even kick-off, the duo finds themself in a sticky situation. They make a pit stop at their crib, only to find a young white girl completely smashed out unconscious in their living room.
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Both Kunle and Sean get scared and agitated. Kunle decides to call the police, but Sean tries to rationally debate how it would look like if a white girl – who is flat out drunk, drugged, and possibly underage, is to be found in the dorm of 2 black males. Unable to come up with a conclusive plan that doesn’t end up them being in jail, they reach out to their other, geeky Latino roommate Carlos, who was in the other room playing video games this entire time. Together, the three of them decide to take it upon themselves to drop the girl to the frat party that she could have possibly come from. Thus begins a quest that feels like one of those bad party night scenarios at first, but pretty soon takes a darker, more introspective turn for all of them.
Now, Emergency is a straight-out comedic thriller rooted within the high-school genre. Williams makes sure he maintains a pretty dopey, high-school night-gone-scenario vibe through and through, but also never holds back from taking a sharp, almost satirical look at the black experience in modern-day America.
One of my favorite sequences in the film involves the three dudes parked out of a posh white neighborhood where a husband and a wife with a ‘Black Lives Matter’ board on their front lawn, threaten the young kids, asking them to go away. Almost as if they feel threatened by them just existing outside their house. This and numerous other well-written scenes take place during the runtime, and while things are almost always kept light, being in the front seat of the car that these black kids are driving around, gives the audience a gateway to all the unforeseeable problems and constant tension they live with.
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Consequently, Williams also looks at both Kunle and Sean with a starkly different lens before bringing them together towards the end. The two dudes come from different backgrounds and come from slightly different privileges. So, when Sean actually tells him that he is shit scared to just call the cops, Kunle doesn’t necessarily take him seriously. This is because he has never been in his shoes. Director Williams takes us into this film with the humane center of Kunle, while also calculatingly looking at what it’s like to be Sean.
The tension and stakes never feel all that mighty, until they actually do. While the film slags away a little bit in the third act, it all comes to a rather shocking and haunting conclusion. The character development that could have helped us care more for these characters is also frankly absent. However, Williams compensates with nerve-wracking tension and genuinely funny jokes that almost always land. Emergency might not be one of the greatest films about racial discord, but its satire feels urgent. Something that doesn’t oversimplify or downplay its subtext, or overplay or overwhelm us with it either. And frankly, that’s a great place to be for a filmmaker who is just one movie old.