Systemic racism and white entitlement fuel Carey Williams's gripping dramedy about a Black friendship stretched to the limit
Emergency is the kind of film that gets labelled “timely” or “relevant,” phrases that are friendly to marketing but also downplay the actual timelessness of the issues it tackles. Starting out as a loose college hangout film, Carey Williams’s forceful sophomore feature gradually descends into a night out of hell, as its three protagonists are forced to navigate a world built by white panic and entitlement, one that seems custom-made to ensure it puts as many people in terrifying danger as possible.
It sounds heavy on paper and, by the ending, Emergency becomes a heavy film, but the best trick played by Williams and writer KD Davila is to start as a comedy. Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) are two best friends coming to the last few months of their college days. Sean is planning to go out in style, securing tickets for the pair of them to do The Legendary Tour – a run of seven parties on the night before Spring Break starts – and become the first Black students to achieve it, though Kunle is a bit more preoccupied with his studies. It’s a classic college-buddy dynamic, brought to charming and funny life by a quick-witted script and two eminently watchable lead performances.
Some discomfort is peppered in early during a lecture in which a white British professor continually says the N-word for some vaguely defined academic purpose, but Emergency swiftly undercuts this by making this also one of its funniest scenes, the blithe idiocy of the teacher and mostly-white students played for big laughs. What really sours the mood, though, is when Sean and Kunle get home to find their door has been left unlocked by their dopey Latino roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) and catatonically drunk white girl Emma has stumbled in in their absence, puked, and passed out.
Though Kunle’s first instinct is to call 911, Sean and Carlos talk him out of it – their house reeks of weed and no cop is going to believe that three young brown men innocently found a passed-out white girl. So the quest to surreptitiously get her to the hospital in Sean’s van begins, intercut with the attempts of Emma’s older sister to find her, which of course brings the police in. Though there is some slapstick silliness in the early stages of the quest, Williams and Davila gradually ratchet up the horror as the full weight of the situation becomes clear to the guys. This slow and steady changing of the tone from comedy to terror is brilliantly handled, no one point out of place even as the film you’re watching at the end feels markedly different to the one you started.
There are some solid jokes about liberal racism – though no gag about white people within the film itself is as funny as the fact that, of the three white girls in the cast, one is actually named Maddie, while the other two are played by actors called Maddie – but Emergency is mostly flinty-eyed about the anti-POC violence that white people so casually engage in. Misunderstandings become potentially lethal with the bulk of this trauma falling on Kunle’s shoulders, his sunny and innocently optimistic disposition being shattered across the film, while Sean protects himself with a shield of world-weary cynicism that hides his true fear.
At a couple of points, the swirling stress and chaos threaten to overwhelm Emergency – a torchlit excursion into the woods in particular – but the central friendship of Sean and Kunle keeps it together. Cyler and Watkins have great chemistry, whether they’re riffing on Kunle’s mum’s Instagram presence or having a tear-soaked heart-to-heart about the possibility of losing one another to random police violence. It’s this bond that really grants Emergency both its comedic and dramatic power, a friendship that never feels anything less than utterly real and worth fighting for in the face of even the most drastic hardships.
Emergency is released in UK cinemas on 20 May.Where to watch