In an increasingly sensitive cultural climate, American universities are recognized as spaces that strive for diversity and inclusion. Sometimes, those measures are mocked, and colleges are erroneously depicted as places that battle so aggressively against bigotry that students are censored and fed lies. This is untrue, but fundamentally so, because bigotry is alive and well on college campuses, even if it takes a milder, yet just as sinister form. As long as race shapes individual and collective experiences, so will racism. In Emergency, director Carey Williams explores how identity shapes experience through the relationship between two best friends on what they had hoped would be the greatest night of their college career, a dream that is quickly dashed when they find an unconscious, drunk girl in their apartment.
Emergency primarily follows best friends Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) as they attempt to be the first two Black men to complete a famous frat-party crawl. Although the two appear worlds apart – Kunle is straight-laced and diligent while Sean is casual and seemingly carefree – they get along together pretty well, at least until their different worldviews drive a wedge between them. When they find a white girl passed out in their home, the two friends become at odds deciding what to do. Sean has more real-world experience than Kunle and doesn’t want to call the police, but it is obvious that the girl needs help. So, they load her into Sean’s car along with their third roommate, Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), and embark on a night riddled with twists, turns, and misfortunes on the way to the hospital.
Emergency is structured like any other “one wild night” film. It’s high energy and comedic, keeping the plot rolling with increasing intensity. Though, the film is able to balance those plot beats with its thematic elements flawlessly. Because the central conflict of Emergency regards identity, more specifically Black men’s relationship with the police and their safety, the narrative is allowed to regularly return to its themes in a way that is natural. These same themes are then expanded upon through dialogue between the two leads, and both characters are so well-defined and cohesive in their arguments that the audience cannot help but sympathize with both. It is also a film about friendship, and viewers are ultimately rooting for both of them to make it out together with their relationship intact. Some scenes touch on these elements all at once – their different worldviews shaped by racism, their fraying friendship, and the dissent of their night into chaos – yet they’re layered and balanced appropriately.
Director Carey Williams coaxes strong personalities from each of his actors, turbo charging the script. Not only do the leads deliver their dialogue perfectly, but Sabrina Carpenter can really play a ignorant and self-absorbed white girl. Even if the script wasn’t as insightful as it actually is, Emergency is worth watching at least for the energy between the cast. Williams’ framing and direction is clearly driven by a sense of purpose, and every stylized decision that differs from genre conventions highlight the narrative well. The overall flow of the film works, especially due to the ever-rising stakes, however, it does unfortunately drag a bit due to the ping-pong between the A and B plots.
In the end, Emergency is a blast, even if it feels strange to say considering the serious subject matter. Younger generations will find humor despite the issues plaguing the world, and it would be a disservice to discount the film of its well-earned laughs because of its heavy material. The dichotomy is what affords nuance to the discussion and a new layer of empathy to the film. The narrative is very clear and pointed with not much wasted space, and each stop of the night frames its story in a new light. Emergency will inevitably do better with younger audiences, though everyone can find something to enjoy, if not something to reflect on.