‘Emergency’ Review: A Witty College Satire of Racial Discord Meets…a Very ’80s Situation

RJ Cyler and Donald Elise Watkins create two vivid campus characters in a comedy of anxiety, paranoia, and high jinks.

Emergency Sundance
Courtesy of Quantrell Colbert/Sundance Institute

Emergency” starts out fast, loose, and boisterously nasty, with two buddies at the relatively upscale Buchanan University doing that thing that buddies do best: giving each other shit just for being who they are. Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), in his button-down shirts, with a quick tongue but a tendency to gawk, is a straight-A straight arrow who’s invested in his studies. His parents are doctors (and rather stern African immigrants), and as he works on his senior thesis, which involves bacteria specimens, he’s doing all he can to live up to their highly disciplined dreams for him. He’s a geek, but not a dull grind; he likes to party. He just believes in the future. Sean (RJ Cyler), on the other hand, with his jewelry and sexy hair and homework-what’s-that? glare, believes in the dope he’s smoking and the moment it seals him into. He loves Kunle like a brother, but he isn’t shy about pointing out that he thinks his friend is a little white on the inside.

These two are the only Black students in their sociology seminar, and as they sit down to endure a discussion about hate speech in which the teacher makes a point of saying the N-word out loud, the movie attains a combustible hilarity — outrageous but grounded. You may think that you’re in for the kind of fast-ball campus comedy, rooted in the thorniness of racial discord, that “Dear White People” was. The two actors hook you and grow on you, with Watkins threading micro shades of cool through his brainy come-on, and Cyler taking what could have been a stock college-screwup role and showing you why Sean is actually the most observant person in the room.

But “Emergency” turns out to be a comedy built, front and center, around a situation. Kunle and Sean are preparing, on this very night, to do the Legacy tour: a party-hopping bacchanal of seven frat bashes, which they’ll be the first Black students at Buchanan to complete. It requires special tickets and the ability to pace yourself. Heading home before it all starts, they debate whether to bring along their roommate, the hopeless gamer Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), and it’s here that they’re confronted by The Complication.

It turns out there’s a girl — a complete stranger — passed out in their living room. A white girl. Who looks like she could be a debauched sorority pledge. How did she get there? They have no idea. (She must have wandered in drunk.) They check for a pulse and try to revive her, but even after she throws up, she’s still unconscious. What should they do? There’s an obvious answer: Call 911. Or call the cops. Or deliver her to the emergency room. Do something.

But after pondering their options for not too many seconds, Kunle and Sean decide that they can’t actually do any of those things. There’s a white girl, dissolute and unconscious (perhaps she was roofied), in their living room. They are two young Black men. What if they get blamed? What if she dies? As the film presents it, there are too many treacherous “What ifs?” that a white person wouldn’t have to consider. And so they take her in the car, and drive, not quite sure what they’re doing. And “Emergency,” in its racially aware way, turns into something that feels not unlike an ’80s comedy. It has winning flashes of wit, of observation, of telling satire. But it’s fundamentally about the situation.

The director, Carey Williams, and the screenwriter, K.D. Dávila, have expanded an 11-minute short they made that won an award at Sundance in 2018, and they’ve done a canny job of it. The short had different actors and a less overtly funny vibe. But it had the seed of this movie’s theme, which has been tended and grown into a full-fledged caper built around the following question: Are Kunle and Sean, obsessing on how they might be viewed as potential criminals, making the smart play, shielding themselves from everything that could go wrong in a racist society? Or are they using their perception of racism as the springboard for a kind of paranoia? If the answer were one or the other, the movie would be more reductive than it is. But the answer is both. They’re protecting themselves…and they’re paranoid.

A comedy caper, even one that’s steeped in social satire, needs the motor of suspense. And “Emergency” has it in fits and starts, but at a certain point I think Williams, as a director, makes a mistake. The passed-out girl wakes up, and we learn who she is ­— Emma (Maddie Nichols), a 17-year-old high-school senior who was visiting her sister (Sabrina Carpenter) at a frat party. I’m not saying that I wanted to see “Emergency” turn into some version of “Weekend at Bernie’s,” with Emma being dragged around and propped up like a bundle of laundry. But once she gains consciousness, we can’t help but think: What’s the conflict now? She’s not passed out anymore. Just take her where she wants to go.

The movie compensates for this by giving her some spiked punch, so that she lapses back into groggy dissolution. But once we know that she has simply had too much to drink and is basically okay, the film loses its spring wire of motivation. That said, “Emergency” still has tricks up its sleeve, especially when the cops do show up. A scene at Sean’s brother place, where Kunle has to try to fit in with what Sean calls “real Black men,” is bitingly funny. Williams keeps the antic hostility popping, and what works about the film is that we remain invested in these characters and the squabbling heat of their anxiety and outrage. I’ll be eager to see what Williams does next, though I hope it’s a movie rooted more in behavior than in the ’80s version of a predicament.

‘Emergency’ Review: A Witty College Satire of Racial Discord Meets…a Very ’80s Situation

Reviewed at Bryant Park Screening Room (Sundance Dramatic Competition), Jan. 19, 2022. Running time: 104 MIN.

  • Production: An Amazon Studios release of a Temple Hill Entertainment production. Producers: Marty Bowen, Isaac Klausner, John Fischer. Executive producers: Kim Coleman, Paul O. Davis, K.D. Dávila, Carey Williams, Wyck Godfrey.
  • Crew: Director: Carey Williams. Screenplay: K.D. Dávila. Camera: Michael Dallatorre. Editor: Lam T. Nguyen. Music: Rene G. Boscio.
  • With: RJ Cyler, Donald Elise Watkins, Sebastian Chacon, Maddie Nichols, Madison Thompson, Sabrina Carpenter.