The saying, “Many a true word spoken in jest” is a fitting way to describe director Carey Williams and screenwriter Kristen “KD” Dávila’s satire, Emergency (2022).
Adapted from their 2018 short film of the same name, Emergency unfolds over what is supposed to be the best night in the lives of two college seniors, Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins). Sean’s plans to complete The Legendary Tour of fraternity parties will immortalise the pair as the first to do so in a college that commemorates the first of anything. With Kunle, the Princeton bound, and responsible one in tow, the only thing Sean needs to worry about is the carefully prepared schedule.
That is, that is until they return home to find a young white girl, Emma (Maddie Nichols), unconscious on the floor of their apartment. Along with their roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), the three friends must decide what to do next. Sean, aware of the dangerous optics of their predicament, three men of colour with an unconscious white girl, dismisses Kunle’s suggestion to call 911. Instead, the trio decides to transport her to a public place and leave her there.
Emergency skilfully adopts comedy to offer a social commentary on the fear people of colour experience in America. Williams, a black American, and Dávila, a Mexican-American, channel their own racial experiences to go beyond race. It’s a humane piece of filmmaking, that reminds us that we’re responsible for one another. It appeals to the audience on a human level, not preaching about America’s history of inequality, but insisting the audience realise why it’s imperative that we confront these toxic divisions.
In conversation with PopMatters, Williams and Dávila discuss exploring the fear of perception for people of colour and the need to penetrate the machismo that prevents men from expressing their vulnerability.
Why storytelling as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Carey Williams: I grew up in a single-parent household. My mom worked a lot. I watched a lot of television and movies, which I feel transformed my world. They were like my babysitter, but I never felt it was something I could do. I was never pushed in that direction, but as I got older, seeing movies like Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989), and directors like Spike Lee making films, I thought maybe I could.
I wanted to study psychology because I had a curiosity about myself and other people and how our brains work. I still have this curiosity. I went to school to study psychology, and they had a film department. I started volunteering on sets, and then I went to film school.
I thought the films that spoke to me as a young kid, I could make those and maybe speak to other kids too.
Psychology informs my directing because it’s getting into the heads of the characters and what is going on beneath their actions. It helps me to understand not only the characters but each actor I’m working with.
Kristen “KD” Dávila: Similarly, I feel was raised with television and movies. It was what my family did – we always watched things together. It took me a while to see myself as someone that could work in this business. I’m Mexican-American, and my family was like, “We’ve sacrificed so much for you to be here, get a real job.” I didn’t think of it as a career path, but I’ve always been a writer.
I have a very distinct memory of when I was in the fourth grade, I’d carry around this notebook with me and I’d sit in the corner of the playground by myself and write. It wasn’t until when I was in college on a creative writing programme that one of my professors told me I was a very visual writer. He asked if I’d done any screenwriting and I said, “No.” I took the one screenwriting class the college had and it just clicked – the medium felt natural.
Picking up on Carey’s interest in psychology, writing is about finding authenticity in the contrived. Is attention to human nature helpful to you as a writer?
Dávila: Writing is trying to inhabit other people and their points-of-view, and their voices. In order to be a good writer, you have to be a listener. You have to observe people and make mental notes about what people are doing and try not to be judgemental, but try to understand where people are coming from. There’s a great diversity of personalities in the world, and you learn depending on what story you’re telling, and the type of people you’re pulling from.
The main characters in Emergency are not based on but inspired by the personalities of the people I know, or aspects of my own self. I talked to Carey a lot in the writing, and his perspective found its way into the movie.
Williams: I’ve pulled from my own life because I’ve lived a version of the life that Sean and Kunle go through, and also my experiences with my brother. The film is exploring the different world views of two black men, and I’ve lived that with my brother. It all informs the art, and we put ourselves into everything we make.
Dávila: I was very quiet around strangers when I was a kid, but not around my family. I’d sit there and observe. One of the things I noticed and we talked about when making this movie, is that I’m one of the pale people in my family. Early on, I noticed that the darker-skinned people in my family, especially the men, had to do this calculation any time we went anywhere, how am I being perceived? The movie is about these guys being aware of how they’re perceived in every moment, and trying to make sure they’re not being perceived as a threat, or in the wrong way.
This is a reality for many people in the black and Latino communities. The comedy and the tension is mined from this concept of, how am I being perceived right now? It came from me observing how my male family members talked to each other. I remember one time my dad sat one of my cousins down and had a talk with him, in a kid-friendly way, about how he would be treated differently because he’s a dark-skinned, young Latino man.
Williams: Kunle never had that discussion with his parents, so he’s unaware, but Sean knows.
Emergency positions white members of the audience to experience the fear that is the everyday reality for people of colour. It also goes beyond the subject of race in America, touching upon the experience of being subjected to any form of violence and intimidation.
Williams: One of the things I wanted to dive into when we made this longer version, was the sense of fear and anxiety young people experience in this country, and specifically young people of colour. It’s a persistent thing we’re thinking about. If you’re driving and you see a cop, then you tense up. It shouldn’t be that way, but that’s how it is. We have Kunle, who doesn’t feel that, but Sean does. From Sean’s perspective, he’s trying to get Kunle to understand the seriousness of the moment, to open his eyes.
I was excited about this and in addition, exploring themes of masculinity amongst young men of colour. We generally have to keep these things to ourselves and not express our feelings to our brothers and friends. It’s toxic for us. It’s detrimental to our growth, and I love that these characters in the film express themselves. They have this catharsis, and through this horrible event that happens on what was supposed to be the best night of their lives, they have a breakthrough in their friendship. They say things they’ve felt to each other, things that are harmful and painful, but it’s great that they communicate and share this catharsis together. It’s a positive effect of a negative situation, and they’ll both be better for it going forward, as friends and as people.
Dávila: Growing up in the Latino community, Mexican-American men tend to be very macho. It’s a generalisation, but it’s true in my family. Growing up, you’d see how hard that is to break down, and the only time it would break down was when something terrifying happened. It’s unfortunate that’s what it can take to get rid of that façade and allow some vulnerability. The characters have these walls up throughout much of the movie, but by the end, they’re able to allow the walls to drop. That was something we talked about a lot.
Williams: The hardness that these black men carry is ingrained in them from their family, it’s for survival. In order to be able to survive, you’ve got to be strong and be a certain way. The messed up thing is holding onto those emotions and not being able to express yourself when you are scared, or when you’re sad, which are natural human expressions. It eats you up and fucks you up! I’m a pretty emo guy. I want to make sure that any young black men who see this film will feel it’s okay to express themselves.
Emergency critiques an absence of self-awareness from the white police officer – who tells the young men to “call the pros” next time – and the white residents of a neighbourhood where a Black Lives Matter sign is pitched.
Williams: The way to help build a little self-awareness is through empathy towards people you’re overlooking. Hopefully, this movie creates that because we’re living with these men. We see their flaws and their positive attributes. We see their relationship and what they go through, and they pose questions. Hopefully for people who think they could have just called the cops, maybe it poses the question, “Why did I feel that way?”
Dávila: We wanted to convey that without necessarily hammering you over the head. We wanted to make sure this film is hopefully funny. Even if you’ve been in this situation before, hopefully, it’ll be cathartic, and will allow people to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, even in spite of how messed up it all is. Laughing with other people is a great way of building empathy.
There’s the saying, “Many a true word, spoken in jest.” Emergency disarms viewers, only to remind them of the truth of its social commentary.
Williams: That’s KD right there. She has this great commentary within a comedic film, and I wanted to make sure I honoured that, and honoured the characters she created that spoke to me in a powerful way because I’ve lived a version of these lives.
Hopefully, the film will encourage viewers to open up the conversation about trauma. We need to challenge the traditional view that trauma is a result of extreme experiences, such as war and violent crime. Instead, we must talk about how it’s a consequence of stressful situations and being denied a feeling of safety and self-worth.
Williams: It’s coming for us at all times and at a rapid pace.
Dávila: It was important that this was not going to be a movie where Kunle gets shot and dies. This is a movie about a situation in which everyone survives, but just because you’ve survived and you weren’t literally shot, or you didn’t see something that’s traditionally considered necessary for it to be traumatic, it is. What Kunle went through was a loss of innocence and it stays with you forever.
Williams: In that last image, there’s a loss of innocence and there’s the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but I also wanted people to feel there’s resilience, and Kunle will persevere. It will at least help him to navigate this world better because his eyes are more open than before, and so that makes him stronger.
Dávila: He has a friend and he has a community that understands.
Emergency opens in US theatres and in select UK theatres through Republic Film Distribution on 20 May and on Amazon Prime on 27 May.