For many people, there is never a more invigorating time in life than those final months of college before being thrust into the “real world.” The uncertainty ahead leads many of us to cling to those last joyous weeks with friends in a setting that has turned into something of a home. In Carey Williams’ outstanding Emergency, adapted from his short film of the same name, best friends and roommates Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) are about to embark on an epic night touring the school’s frat parties with hopes of making it into the Black Student Union’s Hall of Fame. However, what appears to be a comedy about Black men in their final weeks at their predominantly white college becomes a gripping commentary on racism and humanity.
Kunle and Sean could not be more different. A science nerd who spends his days in a biology lab, Kunle is the son of African immigrants with plans to head to Princeton University to earn his Ph.D. In contrast, the care-free perpetually high Sean has no concerns or objectives for the future. Instead, he’s focused on partying and rekindling things with his crush.
The film opens as the gentlemen head into a class where their white British instructor discusses offensive language. The topic of the day is the n-word, and the satirical and biting scene becomes downright hilarious as viewers watch the horror and discomfort of both Kunle and Sean while the teacher says the word repeatedly. (For educational purposes, of course.)
While humorous, Williams uses the scene to showcase the astonishing but all-too-common experiences people of color deal with in predominately white institutions. Moreover, it also highlights Kunle and Sean’s contrasting personalities. While Kunle tries to wrestle with the professor’s reasoning for her teachings, Sean thinks she should be fired. Despite the sheer awkwardness of the class, the friends press on with their day. They head home for the evening to prepare for an epic night and to catch up with their video game-obsessed roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon). However, the pair get way more than they bargain for when they open the door to find a passed-out drunk white girl — who we come to learn is named Emma (Maddie Nichols) — on their living room floor.
What happens next is an emotionally striking commentary on racial dynamics, humanity, and youthful ignorance. Terrified, Carlos and Kunle lean into naïveté, while Sean wants to remove himself from the situation as swiftly as possible. The film’s only muddled moments come here when the trio argues and talk in circles about what to do next. Eventually, they all decide that calling the police is out of the question, especially since it could likely become a death sentence for one or all of them. However, much to Sean’s horror, it’s agreed that they will return Emma to the frat party that she apparently came from. Taking care to dress nicely and drive under the speed limit, Kunle, Carlos, and Sean embark on a mini road trip from hell with a semi-conscious Emma in tow.
Though the film maintains some humor as it heads toward the climax and finale, things become dire for everyone involved when Emma’s need for medical attention becomes apparent. To complicate matters, the drunken girl’s sister, Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter) begins tracking her phone.
The tone shifts and changes throughout the film, but what’s important here is that Williams and screenwriter K.D. Dávila, are trying to grapple with the perils of racisim and the pain of disillusionment. Despite his friends’ compassion toward Emma, Sean recognizes that in coming to her aide, he, Carlos and Kunle are being forced to choose her humanity and life over their own. As the guys and Emma eventually cross paths with Maddie her best friend Alice (Madison Thompson), and Alice’s boo Rafael (Diego Abraham), the audiences will learn everyone’s fate and if the choices made by three scared young men will cost them everything.
Films about racism certainly aren’t a rarity, but what makes Emergency stand out is that it depicts the literal interruption of Black boy joy. With outstanding performances, particularly by Watkins and Cyler, the film is not simply about vulnerability and the vast spectrum of the Black male experience in America; it’s also at its core one about friendship and what it truly means to be your brother’s keeper.
Emergency premiered at Sundance Festival Jan. 21, 2022.