Black joy gets interrupted early in Carey Williams' thrilling Emergency as two young best friends have an epic party night plans thwarted by a drunk, young white girl. The moment turns what starts as a college party night movie into something more poignant and revealing. Emergency creates an empathetic, funny, and tense experience of something that most white people don't have to think about, the perception of law enforcement in certain situations due to race.
Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) is young Black excellence, a model student on his way to becoming a Ph.D. student. His best friend Sean (RJ Cyler) is less ambitious in a scholarly way but still has big goals. One of those is to tour all of the school's frat parties in one night in order to become the first black students to do so and thus enter the Black Student Union's Hall of Fame. While these two best friends couldn't be more different, their bond is evident from the film's first frame. This may be partly due to going to a predominantly white college but there is more to their relationship than circumstance. That relationship gets tested quickly as they find a passed out, very young white girl in their house as they are trying to get ready for their epic night of partying.
Willaims wisely knows that this situation would be easily resolved if Kunle and Sean were white. They would just call the police and that would be that. Since they are black, Sean points out how this situation looks and is quick to assume they will be blamed for things. Emergency never lets us forget about all the police shootings that happen in America, particularly to people of color. We get why the solution to this problem isn't so simple. They enlist their video game-loving roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) to help them figure out what to do. We come to learn later that the girl is named Emma (Maddie Nichols).
The journey of these three boys as they try to get themselves out of this situation while still doing the right thing is an emotional and smart commentary on racial dynamics. All three boys are scared but each deal with it differently. Carlos and Kunle try to remain naïve to the possible outcomes while Sean wants to remove himself from the equation. They agree to take Emma back to the party they think she came from. They borrow clothes from Kunle, because he "dresses white", and carefully drives her back. Things don't go as planned, especially when Emma wakes up.
Emergency maintains a clever balance of humor and suspense. The film's tone changes often but the focus remains on Kunle and Sean's friendship and the racial implications of the situation. Despite wanting to do the right thing, Sean realizes that he may be choosing Emma's safety and well-being over his own. What could be the cost of this situation? The way this plays out is heartbreaking and poignant.
Emergency is a stand-out thanks to the confident direction, clear-eyed screenplay, and great performances. Watkins and Cyler are fantastic together. Their friendship and unique reactions to the situation give the film more heart than you might expect. What starts out as a college party film morphs into a tense film about racism.