Emergency, the debut feature from director Carey Williams, tackles weighty social issues ranging from White privilege to Black identity. Using a ‘one-crazy night’ premise, Williams takes his characters from one comedic dilemma to the next, each time upping the stakes for incorrect decisions.
At its core, however, Emergency is an unconditional love story about two friends with divergent views on what it means to be a young Black man in America. The film barely holds together, but it’s worth seeing as a reminder that White people and Black people still live in different worlds with wildly different expectations and fears.
Emergency is the story of Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), graduating college seniors with different futures awaiting them. Kunle is headed to Princeton for his Ph.D. His idea of a fun Friday night is babysitting his bacterial cultures at the lab. Conversely, Sean is a wild card. He stays impetuous, playing life’s game as it finds him. His primary objective in life is to complete The Legendary Tour, a pub crawl through all the fraternity houses near campus. They couldn’t be more different but still have an abiding dedication to one another.
Their long-anticipated attempt to complete The Legendary Tour is interrupted when they return home to find a young white woman passed out in their apartment. Their roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) was too busy playing video games and getting high to hear Emma (Maddie Nichols) stumble into the flat and collapse. Kunle’s instinct is to summon emergency services immediately, but Sean worries three men of color in a room with a semi-comatose white girl will arouse suspicions. His argument, sadly, is very compelling, so the three decide to transport Emma to a public place and leave her for others to find.
Of course, calling 911 is the proper response, unless you live in a world populated by white cops with itchy trigger fingers who assume you’re up to no good. Just being in the wrong place at the wrong time can get an innocent Black man killed. While there are no overt references to George Floyd or myriad other victims of real-world police brutality, their legacy looms large over Emergency. Sean takes the lead in a frantic race to deliver Emma to safety before the authorities discover them.
Amid this basic premise, Sean and Kunle fight about the proper behavior of a young Black man in modern society. These arguments, while mildly interesting, are not seamlessly woven into the story. Emergency, the feature-length adaptation of a short film screened at Sundance 2018, falls into a predictable pattern; a wacky scenario complicates the plot – a serious monologue by Sean or Kunle – repeat. The action quickly grows tedious after you recognize the repetition.
That’s a shame because there are some inspired gags in KD Davila’s script. An angry white couple threatens to call the cops on our trio as they nearly trip over the Black Lives Matter sign in their yard. Another clever scene finds Kunle orchestrating a singalong to “Stayin’ Alive” to help him keep the rhythm while performing CPR. There’s good stuff here if you remain patient.
No one will ever confuse Emergency with Do the Right Thing. However, it’s still a useful barometer to gauge America’s cultural progress. Sadly, we have a long way to go.