Emergency’s Sharp Humor Alerts Us to Crisis
A hilarious night of college chaos develops spectacularly into a drama of discrimination that we can’t —and shouldn’t— look away from.
Emergency begins with the usual one-night party film stakes: I haven’t told my best friend I’m not moving to the same city as him next year; Our time at college is ending so we want to hook up with the girls of our dreams, and get our names up on the wall of fame at the Black Students Society; I forgot to lock the fridge door in the lab and my final thesis hinges on getting back there to shut it before my experiment fails.
The basic premise is that Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) have the ultimate party night planned, but on their way to the first party they find a white girl (Maddie Nichols) unconscious in their apartment. The white girl is Maddie’s (Sabrina Carpenter) sister, but the boys don’t know that. She invited her sister to a party, and then left her alone for hours, and has now begun a frantic mission to find her. The boys can’t call 911 without being implicated, but they want to get her to help. All while “the Barack Obama of bacteria and fungus” Kunle’s academic future at Princeton is disappearing with every minute that fridge is still open…
It’s an entertaining concept, but it’s bigger than the chaos. Emergency centres the catastrophic consequences of simply existing. Black men are being hunted by cops in America; Women are regularly hunted down and drugged by violent men at parties. In this case, Kunle and Sean’s roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) was genuinely in his room playing video games all afternoon, and they have no idea how the girl got into their house, but the truth doesn’t matter. Black people die when they call the police, usually getting shot even before the cops ask questions.
For Maddie (Carpenter), losing her sister at this frat party feels like a moral failure, because —in a world where women face the most horrifying outcomes any time they find themselves alone— knowing where your girl friends are at all times is more than an act of love: It’s a survival tactic in a community that desperately needs to ensure their safety. For the three men of colour, it’s not as simple as calling 911 for moral reasons; it’s life or death—and cleverly, Emergency’s predicament places their three lives against that of one white girl.
What makes Emergency powerful, and unforgettable is that it taps into Blackness in all the moments we experience day to day. Writer K.D. Dávila tackles the power dynamics of race, colorism, and discrimination on many levels. Most remarkably, through humor. The film is a triumph of all-around artistry, and a joy to behold. If you enjoy watching alcohol and weed-infused shenanigans, and the cinematic magic of friendship dynamics blown up and pieced back together, then this is the film for you —it’s just also so much more.
Emergency‘s jokes are outrageous and ambitious.
When the boys decide they’ll drive the girl to the hospital, they know they are risking their lives. They instinctively know to change into conservative-looking outfits —“No hats. No hoodies.”— to lower the chances of being pulled over. It’s subtle at first, and easier to look away from while the boys are still having fun together, but a Black kid’s youth is ripped from him with every moment that he must second-guess how his joy —or his best intentions— looks to a white audience amidst the ever-present danger of police. And that is a crisis.
We should not be able to look away from these issues. They need to be corrected. But as people of color, and indeed for women as well, sometimes we need to take a fucking breath. Black people have long used humor to cope, and to commune over the experiences society has forced upon us. We need humor and true comedy —written from experience; by, for, and starring the people most deeply and urgently affected— as seriously as we need the changes to fix the system.
Emergency’s jokes are outrageous and ambitious. The absurdity of the n-word boldly displayed in the background of almost every frame after the teacher puts it up during her “controversial” lecture is a gift that keeps on giving. There’s profound wisdom in Sean’s answer when Kunle asks if it’s still wrong if a white person standing alone in a forest whispers the n-word to himself. (This scene also casually acknowledges the fact that Kunle, unlike Sean, hasn’t been called the n-word to his face in a derogatory way.)
Emergency also delights in ephemeral, indulgent jokes that are rooted in reality. In one inconvenient scene, the boys pull over in a suburban street so the girl (now awake, but barely) can urinate in a bush. The boys stand around the car, discussing their choices while they wait for her—only to be interrupted by a “Karen and Mr Karen” as listed in the credits, who have been filming them and accuse them of drug dealing. There’s a delicious, disgraceful irony as the boys rush to drive away when the camera pans to show us that the couple has a Black Lives Matter sign posted on their front lawn.
The weight of what they’ve risked really hits home when Sean decides to leave the group and abandon their ill-fated rescue mission. “I just wanna make it to the next day with my friends,” he says, “but my friends keep wanting to help these white people.” And it’s impossible to ignore what is really being said: Emergency asks us to recognize these young men as the fun-loving, kind-hearted, ambitious people that they are —and then forces us to see the cost that people of colour must pay to rescue white people from their own recklessness.
RJ Cyler is fantastic as Sean; delivering comedic blows with a genuine sense of heart for his friend, while also being unashamedly provocative. Cyler uses physicality as much —and as an equally strong vehicle for eliciting laughter—as he uses his face and voice to portray the characters.
Donald Elise Watkins’ Kunle sometimes feels like the predictable but engaging nerdy character. But when his reality shatters and the emotion —sadness, mostly— begins to pour through his face, little by little through the cracks as his character allows himself to, Watkins is a wonder —a revelation!—in his performance of Black masculinity and friendship with Cyler’s Sean. In his portrayal of a young man getting his heart broken for the first time by an entire system, we see a kid realizing that it’s as bad as everyone has always told him; perhaps worse because it’s happening to him right now.
The movie is lit like a party: colorful strobe lights scanning crowds, shadows cast over bodies moving; Dark skin illuminated so naturally even outdoors at night that it feels like you’re standing right there in the street with the boys (A rare and precious gift not usually afforded to Black skin on screen). The story is punctuated with flashlights, car headlights, neon signs in the streets they drive by; Eventually, the revolving red and blue flashes of a police siren appear.
The threat is real and heart-wrenchingly urgent when we finally see them confronted by police.
Emergency’s switch from humor to heartbreak is reminiscent of the shocking plot twist in Trey Edward Shults’ radiant Waves. The difference here is that it’s jarring when things turn dark, but not completely unexpected.
The main driving factor for Kunle, Carlos, and Sean is avoiding the cops, so it’s always been possible; But while watching the comedic first half, we can’t help but feel like maybe, here inside this upbeat film, we could evade them.
When Maddie and her friends eventually find the boys, she rushes at them, hitting the two Black men with a stick. She is undoubtedly the aggressor, and the boys hardly move, but her white friend tells the 911 responder on the phone that “They’re fighting with our friend now.” The bias is brief but bold, and it speaks volumes.
The threat is very real and heart-wrenchingly urgent when we do finally —perhaps, unavoidably— see them confronted by police. It’s a harrowing scene, set to somber choral music, made even more disturbing by its depiction of facts unfolding about the recent Texas elementary school shooting. Emergency asks: What have the cops ever done but dismiss our very real concerns, and then obstruct justice when they decide to act?
As the police focus on Kunle —who seconds earlier was giving life-saving first-aid treatment to Maddie’s sister, but to the cops is just another Black man— and choose not to see the scene clearly, rationally, or reasonably in any way, we flash back to an earlier incident when the police ignored Maddie’s very real call for help. She reported seeing a mysterious car rush off with her sister in it, and the 911 dispatcher dismissed her as intoxicated.
After the police confrontation and the obvious way that it shattered Kunle, you wonder where the film is going to take us next. When the answer is an emotional conversation between two Black men —first confessing their terror, their pain, in tears, and then laughing, all within minutes of each other— it’s easy to understand why that’s where it needed to go.
Plans of party-hopping feel worlds away when we’re in the room with two young men joking quietly and acknowledging the world of hurt between them. Watching Kunle and Sean just be, while we as an audience are still shaken by what we witnessed, knowing what they lived through, is difficult. The awareness that Black people have to move on like this every single day, coming home to each other just relieved that they’re alive, is excruciating.
In a delightful and thoroughly satisfying twist at the end, when Maddie shows up at Kunle’s home with an explanation, Emergency brilliantly demonstrates the futility and self-congratulatory nature of white apologies; How shallow and useless any excuse from their perspective seems when seen against our trauma.
Black people move on like this every single day, coming home to each other just relieved that they’re alive.
The final moments of this film are close-up of Kunle and Sean’s faces; Black boys beaming with joy as they play Jenga with their friends. Then we hear a siren in the background. What at first seems like commentary eventually feels like solidarity: Initially, the siren sound playing over the imagery of a boy having fun in his own home feels like a reminder to the audience that even in our joy, the threat remains.
But then Kunle’s face falls, and we know that he, too, hears the siren. Director Carey Williams cuts to Sean seeing Kunle’s panic; that’s it —just seeing him. He doesn’t make a move, he doesn’t alert the others, the world spins on around them. And it’s clear that that’s the message: We are all we’ve got. Seeing, and being there for each other, is sometimes the best we can do.
Kunle’s eyes reflect the horror that is daily life for people of colour. He looks right at us for a second before the sirens fade and the screen goes black. Big, white all-caps text fills the screen: EMERGENCY. Stay tuned for a sweet scene during the credits that will put a smile on your face. But when the full credits roll, they’re set to the heavy beat of a clock ticking along to suspenseful orchestral music, reminding us that the threat remains. While excelling as a comedy, Emergency instills a crushing sense of devastation that stayed with me for days after I watched the film.