That one wild night in college. Cinema is filled with tales of students attempting to navigate drunk revelry while on the path to higher education. What makes Carey Williams’ latest work Emergency standout from its peers is its astute understanding that college is drastically different when you are a person of colour at a predominantly white institution.
Adapting his 2018 Sundance short film of the same name, Williams captures the complexities of the Black college experience through a rather ingenious premise. Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), a straight-A student who just got into the PhD program at Princeton, and his vape loving friend Sean (RJ Cyler), are two months away from graduation. Before they leave, they intend to make history by being the first Black students to complete the “legendary tour” by attending seven exclusive frat parties in one night.
Their plans hit a snag before the night even gets rolling when they arrive home to discover that there is a passed out white girl, Emma (Maddie Nichols), on their floor. Seeing as their video-game loving roommate Carlos, who is Latino, had no clue she was in the house, the three men must figure out what to do. Kunle immediately thinks they should call the police, but Sean and Carlos are not so sure that is a wise move. Thanks to Sean’s pre-partying ritual, their house smells like weed, and Kunle’s fingerprints are on the girl as he turned her on her side so she wouldn’t choke on her own vomit.
Realizing that they do not know any white people who can call the police on their behalf, the trio ultimately decide to take the girl to the hospital. A decision that ultimately causes the dominoes of increasingly bad judgment calls to fall. Making matters worse is that Emma’s sister Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter), her friend Alice (Madison Thompson) and Rafael (Diego Abraham), a guy Alice met at one of the parties, are out looking for Emma, who they believe has been abducted.
Luring audiences in with its sharp humour, Emergency’s tone gradually shifts from amusing to nerve-wracking. What makes Kunle, Sean, and Carlos’ journey so tense is that the young men, and the viewer, are keenly aware of how every action will be perceived by others. They do not even leave their house with Emma without changing into the “teachery” style of clothing Kunle routinely wears. To wear baggy clothing will automatically lead others to assume that something nefarious is afoot.
Of course, it is the colour of their skin, regardless of their attire, that is the real problem. A point emphasized when, while making a pit stop, a white couple come running out of their house threatening to call the cops and claiming that the men are conducting a drug deal.
While one might dismiss such a scene as an exaggeration, Williams expertly shows that these are not one-off incidents. Throughout the entire film perception is the shadow that Kunle, Sean, and Carlos cannot shake. Despite being educated individuals—Sean’s ex-girlfriend refers to Kunle as Black excellence who must be protected at one point—their race is all that people see. Even a person like Maddie, who claims that she is not racist to a police operator, is unable to see her own inherent racial bias. She is quick to assume guilt regardless of evidence that proves otherwise.
What makes the brilliant script by Kristen “K.D.” Dávila so effective is that it never lets Maddie off the hook. By the end, one is fully aware of the lasting impact she and her actions will have on Kunle. Much like the great overhead shot of a lone flashlight moving through the thick woods, Williams and Dávila show how being Black in America often means having to navigate the dense roots of racial bias. One must be constantly prepared to perform the delicate dance of de-escalation with numerous unwilling partners at a moments notice.
The most terrifying aspect of Williams film is that the mental gymnastics that Kunle, Sean, and Carlos must perform feel all too familiar. While the premise is initially played for laughs, one quickly understands the gravity of the stakes at play. Part of this is due to the strong performances from the ensemble cast. Watkins and Cyler are outstanding in the leads, bringing both humour and layered complexity to their respective characters. A surprising and refreshingly original work, Emergency captures how race and perception can make even the most obvious choice extremely complicated.
Emergency screens as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Head here for more on this year’s festival.