SXSW 2022: EMERGENCY Entertains and Engages

Director Carey Williams & writer KD Davilla project a voice that demands to be heard

Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) have a plan.

Tonight, weeks before their college graduation, they’re going to get their photo on the Black Student Union’s wall of fame by attending all 7 of the major campus parties in one night. Kunle is the studious one, concerned about keeping his lab bacteria refrigerated, while Sean is the partier, concerned mostly with the perfect level of buzz before their crawl. Kunle is headed to Princeton after graduation, though he hasn’t told Sean yet. Sean believes they’re going to live together off campus and continue bro-ing out. All those plans change in an instant when Sean, Kunle, and their roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), three promising and frankly delightful young men of color, find a random white girl passed out in their living room.

For me, a straight white middle class male, this would be a crazy and highly unlikely development which I’d most likely resolve with a phone call to the police. For Sean, Kunle, and Carlos, this is an emergency. Young men like them have historically faced violence and imprisonment when getting perceived to be “wronging” a white woman in any way. And interactions with law enforcement? Fraught to say the least. Sean, whose brother is on parole, argues the most vigorously that the police should not be called, while Kunle, whose parents are doctors, is much more inclined to just go ahead and make the call. What follows is a “one crazy night” type of film that expertly explores issues of major social relevance and also engages and entertains with visual energy (from director Carey Williams), a crackling script (from writer KD Davilla), and game cast.

This is not stodgy material. Emergency brims with humor, promise, and just plain likeability. Within minutes the audience grasps the significance of the bonds of friendship between these roommates, and the unique challenges and microaggressions these young men experience on an American college campus. By the time their emergency arises, we’re already with these guys, rooting for them to get through this night unscathed and get this young lady to safety. There’s energy, meaningful relationships, and propulsion in the plotting as we also follow the unconscious white girl’s friends and family who are tracking the phone Emma has hidden in her dress. The audience desperately wants everyone to get out of this unscathed, but the consequences of this scenario so very clearly differ from the black men to the white women.

While Emergency entertains and hooks its audience, it also deals with the weight of the situation with an appropriate heaviness, and nuance. Sean is resolute in his need to steer our group away from any and all contact with the police. Kunle is more willing to put himself at risk to help unconscious Emma. But Sean is more aware of the consequences and Kunle is slightly more naive. At the heart of the film is actually the poignant bond of friendship between Sean and Kunle, two black men who simply care deeply about one another, and the potentially deadly consequences one drunk white girl stumbling into their lives can have on their friendship and their future.

Coming soon to Prime Video, Emergency deserves the wide exposure that that streaming platform can bring to it. This is the kind of film that has so much to say, but isn’t a chore to watch. It brings nuance and humanity to the types of situations that people of color in America today face that many privileged and/or white viewers, such as myself, may not always take into consideration. This is the kind of film that can appeal to a wide audience of any background through its energy and likeability, but will leave viewers from all walks of life with something to think about as they walk one crazy night in the shoes of the kinds of young men the future of this country will be built on.

And I’m Out.

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