Filmmaker Carey Williams’ sophomore feature is kinetic and hilarious, while also being a rare film that showcases the personal, i.e. the broadest politics.
Imagine two of your friends come home to find a mysterious drunk girl passed out, reeking of her own retching. What would you suggest they do? The most practical and instinctive reaction is to call 911, right? But what if I tell you your friends are people of color and the girl is white? Let me add another layer: what if this girl, in addition to being white, was also a minor? Carey Williams’ second feature film Emergency is a scorching vision of racial politics, in the guise of a harmless buddy-and-on-the-road flick. Smart lines and smart writing make Emergency outrageously funny in very real situations, while at the same time it never belittles the characters or the premise. Some of these jokes, drawn from the helplessness of the characters, work precisely because they are not addressed to them, but to the public.
Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), Sean (RJ Cyler) and their Latin American friend Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) are caught up in this nightmare, when Carlos, a gambler, once again forgets to lock their house. While the more practical Kunle suggests calling 911 to help Emma (Maddie Nichols), Sean and Carlos vote against it, given the history of abuse and death black people have faced from the Department of police. Williams dumps his actors in what could be considered absurd situations, which feels like a biting satire of what is real and what is not.
Soft-spoken Kunle and mouth-mouthed Sean are determined to make it to their school’s hall of fame for finishing off a wild night. A brilliant student arriving at Princeton University, Kunle comes from a privileged background; his parents are doctors, while Sean is less privileged and has seen the world for What It is. Their economic backgrounds are established from the start and help us understand where Kunle and Sean are from, and Why they do things the way they do.
In the opening scene, Kunle and Sean listen to a lecture on hate speech in which the professor repeatedly uses the N-word, albeit after issuing a trigger warning. Kunle becomes a silent participant, while Sean fidgets at the mention of the word. They argue over it. For Kunle, the N-word is not a big deal. But Sean points out what the problem is: “They [White] doesn’t like to tell us what to do, even if the word is disrespectful.
Emergency is a rare film that gives reason to the personal, that is to say to the broadest politics. Although Sean and Kunle are black people and allies, and they are under the guise of oppression, they are always adversaries when it comes to the class question. At one point, indeed, after an altercation with Sean, Kunle shamelessly admits that he had a happy childhood and he regrets that Sean didn’t. This class disparity plays out wonderfully in debates, which makes Emergency a little more different and important than your usual buddy movies. The same time, Emergency should not be misinterpreted as a critique of all things white. For, the film targets and speaks to the largely privileged African-American people who are blinded by their privileged upbringing, refusing to understand what Brotherhood stands for.
In a sense, Emergency could be considered Kunle’s coming-of-age story; it is essentially his political awakening, if we consider the end which may seem convenient on the surface, but which shows what it is. The police track Kunle and others, and we hear dark music and a slow-motion shot. We will save the details for you. That’s when Kunle wakes up to what Sean has always feared is happening to them. “As a black man, you just have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Sean said in an earlier scene.
In the film’s “epilogue”, Kunle looks at the world with a different lens. Fear has already crept in and it’s with this scared that he stares at the camera, breaking the fourth wall.
Emergency was screened at the ongoing 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Watch this space for more coverage.