Emergency [Sundance ’22 Review]

Emergency still of Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), Sean (RJ Tyler) and Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) in a car.

Emergency starts as a comedy but spirals into a dramatic film that leaves you filled with dread as it progresses. Directed by Carey Williams and written by KD Davila, Emergency is about a night of would-be partying spiraling into a comedy of errors that leads to a potentially dangerous outcome. With strong directing and dynamic acting from the trio of men, Emergency tackles the terror of racism in an engrossing way. It does not seek to find a resolution but demonstrates how that unwarranted terror can have a lasting impact. 

Comedy With Underlying Terror

Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Tyler) have plans for spring break—to cement themselves in the Hall of Firsts by being the first Black men to hit a slew of campus parties in one night. The entire plan goes off the rails before it can even begin when they arrive home and find their front door open, roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) high, clueless and gaming in his room, and an unconscious white girl (Maddie Nichols) on their living room floor. The trio of friends debate their options; Kunle wants to call the police, but a more aware Sean adamantly rejects the option since two Black men, a Latino man and an unconscious white girl, is a recipe for tragedy. 

After a lot of arguing and some vomit, they decide to drop her back off at the party she came from, but this proved unsuccessful. Meanwhile, the girl’s sister, Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter), is searching for her sister at the party with her friends. Using the phone tracking app, they pursue the leads and what they see looks questionable at best, damning at worst. The comedy lasts for most of the film, but the underlying terror also mounts. I was scared of a traumatizing end to the film and although it does not have that ending, there is some pain, anger, and sadness for the effects of racism. 

Characters You Care And Fear For

Donald Elise Watkins as Kunle is the hilarious, nerdy Black future doctor who gets nervous around girls but is also optimistic—blindly so—when dealing with racial dynamics. That’s why he defends their white British teacher’s use of the n-word. Donald Elise Watkins balances cluelessness and caring with inner strength. Depending on the viewer, you’ll either cheer for his personality or fear where his character may wind up. Kunle is the type that does not acknowledge that racism is rampant. He thinks when a cop shoots a Black criminal, the word “criminal” is the reason, but the reason is they are Black; the excuse is criminal. 

Emergency still of director Carey Williams
Carey Williams, director of Emergency, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. courtesy of Sundance Institute

RJ Tyler stands out in Emergency among a trio of impressive performances. Not only does he navigate comedy, but he also does it with a deft awareness for timing that conveys a mix of hilarity and seriousness when the scene requires it. His character, Sean, cares for and strives to educate Kunle on the hazards of being Black in a world that views Black skin as dangerous and guilty without evidence. So he fears the potential dangers of their situation. Sebastian Chacon is hilarious as their fanny-pack-wearing, gamer roommate, who tries helpful, but worsens the situation.

Racism Is The Threat

The heartbreaking part is there is no right or wrong solution in this situation, not in Emergency nor in real life. For Black people especially, all choices run the risk of harm or death. The comedy lies in how a situation can spiral downhill so fast. I have been in those situations where I wondered, “how the hell did this happen?” Yet the fear never abates. From the moment they see the white girl on their living room floor, the worry about how the situation will end is always building. The outcome is terrifying, and the comedy fades by the end of the film, there is little to laugh about. If you’re still laughing, you have not been paying attention.

All Of It Works Together To Bring An Amazing Film

The music is excellent, and I will be looking for the soundtrack on vinyl. The directing understands how to hold the tension underneath the comedy. Carey Williams did a terrific job, and I am excited to see what he crafts in the future. My only issue is why they would show a Black woman, Sean’s friend Asa (Summer Madison), with no connection or development in the rest of the film. Including her in this manner gives the impression of checking off a box.   

Emergency builds the comedy while amplifying the tension underneath, and it is a beautiful piece about friendship, growing apart, and growing up in a racist world. The last image before the credits begin is distressing and breaks your heart because no Black or Brown person should have their life devalued because of their skin. It is sobering and reflects the trauma too many Black people experience. You enter the situation as one person, and leave it—if you are fortunate to leave—someone else. Emergency hits it out of the park with moving performances that garner laughter and sorrow. 

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