Sean, Carlos and Kunle in a car.

RJ Cyler, Sebastian Chacon, Donald Elise Watkins as Sean, Carlos and Kunle in Carey Williams' Emergency. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

Emergency: A Sundance Film Review

Emergency attempts to prepare the audience for class and cultural differences, and the constant prosecution of Black people in America.

Read our review of Carey Williams’ Emergency: A Sundance Film.

Carey Williams’ Emergency premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and it centers around two best friends. Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) are in their final year of college. It explores complex themes of racism and gun violence against Black people in America. In addition to those themes, Emergency adds a comedic twist to the story. The characters wind up wrapped in a misunderstanding that leads them into a deeper mess. The movie understands that there are consequences to every decision the characters are making. This is especially true when you consider that they are minorities on a mostly white campus.

The movie itself starts with Kunle and Sean’s white teacher discussing the history of a racial slur against Black Americans. Sean is deeply disturbed and believes that the white teacher must be fired from the college, while Kunle thinks differently. He believes that there’s a reason why she said the racial slur. Emergency introduces us to how Kunle and Sean’s background and experiences as Black men in America are vastly different. Kunle is the son of African immigrants and proudly displays his academic achievements. He lands a position in the graduate program in Princeton. Sean is uninterested in academics and fully aware of the racial injustices surrounding him. 

Sean is determined to participate in the Legendary Tour. The tour is a Spring Break tradition: a frat party for seniors at their college. His goal is to become the first Black student to hit every party in the tour. Kunle is concerned about finishing his mold experiment in the lab and patiently waiting for his acceptance letter to Princeton. Before they head to the pre-game, Kunle and Sean head home home. There they discover a drunk, semi-conscious white girl on the floor.

Their friend, Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), who forgot to lock the door, does not know that she entered the house. He was too busy playing video games in his room. Kunle suggests calling the police, but Sean disagrees. He tries to tell Kunle that they (two Black men and one Latino man) can’t be seen with a drunk, semi-conscious white girl. The situation could go very badly. Instead of calling the police, the trio agrees to take the girl (Emma) to one of the parties at the Legendary Tour. 

Concurrently, Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter), Emma’s sister, realizes that she is missing. She begins to search for her through her phone’s location. As she follows the trail, she sees the Kunle, Sean and Carlos drag Emma’s body into a van. Obviously this forces Emma to think of the worst possible scenario. What follows after this is a chaotic chase between two groups. Both of them trying to find a safe way to deal with Emma’s situation.

As Kunle, Sean and Carlos are figuring out what to do with Emma, they get into a few scary situations. In one, a white couple records them as they are standing in front of their van, suspicious of their prescence. When the three friends are discussing whether to call the police or not, the couple warns them that they will call the police on them if they don’t leave. Because they are Brown, the couple assume that they are selling drugs in the neighborhood. 

Maddy is on a call, still from  Emergency. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Sabrina Carpenter as Maddy from Emergency. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

When Maddy finds Emma unconscious in the van, she assumes that the three friends kidnapped and drugged her. She doesn’t trust them and screams to tell them to stay away. In both of these situations, the white couple and Maddy are stereotyping and generalizing Kunle, Sean and Carlos. Both because of racial power dynamics and stereotypes. When Maddy calls the police and is connected she tells the operator the suspects were Black men. In the shot, even though the audience knows who the three friends are, they are barely visible. But Maddy assumes their race because of the neighborhood that they are in. 

Later, when Maddy catches up to the three friends and begs Kunle to take Emma to the hospital, Sean leaves. He pleads with Kunle. He want him to understand that Maddy is not going to save him when he gets caught by the police. Sean understands that Black people and the police have a history that is dark and racist. Unfortunately this message falls on deaf ears. Kunle believes that the cops are going to believe him when he says that he was trying to save Emma. That was far from the truth.

As Carlos is driving them to the hospital, Kunle is performing CPR on Emma as the police are chasing them. At the hospital, the police grab Kunle, push him to the ground and restrain him. Maddy and her friends watch this happen from the sidewalk. At that moment, Kunle realizes what Sean has been telling him. Sean’s instinct was to save himself from the misunderstanding. He wasn’t running away but knew what the consequences were going to be for him. He couldn’t risk his life for a few strangers. 

Even though Emergency explores complex themes, it interjects zany situations into the show and becomes a comedy thriller that’s worth a watch. The movie highlights the era of police violence against young Black men and Black Lives Matter protests. It speaks on the lived experience of Black men and the performative “wokeness” or activism of white characters in the film. 

After the white couple threatens the three friends, a sign with the words “Black Lives Matter” is seen on their front lawn. In another scene, Maddy and Emma visit the trio’s house, and Maddy attempts to apologize to Kunle for her behavior. She reads out a written apology on a piece of paper and promises Kunle to learn from the experience.

Emergency prepares the audience for class and cultural differences, and the constant prosecution of Black people in America. It seems to explore both sides of the argument. Ultimately it slowly begins to show us the true message behind the themes.. Cyler’s performance is incredible and his comedic timing saves most of the awkward moments in the movie. Watkins and Cyler are dynamic on screen and bring a lot of energy to the show. Williams’ Emergency navigates white privilege and how the intentions of the three friends were distorted by their white counterparts. It tackles issues with effective moments of friendship and showcases how indifference leads to dangerous situations.

For more from Nuha, check out her review of The Silent Sea here.

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