• Festivals

“EMERGENCY” – When a Wrong Night Turns Out Right

It is not often that lightning strikes twice at Sundance for the same film but for Carey Williams, that is exactly what happened for the opening night unspooling of EMERGENCY at Sundance 2022. This marks the Pensacola, Florida native’s second showcase of that title, the first being his presentation in the shorts section back in 2018. But now the full-length feature version of the same film was selected to be his U.S. Dramatic Competition debut (his 2021 film R&J premiered in the Next section of the festival.) The story, written by K.D. Davila, is a comedic thriller that places racial dynamics at its central core.

The plot centers on straight-A college student Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and his laid-back best friend, Sean (R.J. Cyler), who are about to have the most epic night of their lives. Determined to be the first Black students to complete their school’s frat party’s legendary tour, the friends strap in for attendance at the best seven parties the school has to offer. But a quick pit stop at home alters their plans when they find a white girl passed out on the living room floor. Faced with the risks of calling the police under what might be life-threatening optics given their race, Kunle, Sean, and their Latino roommate, Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), must find a way to save the situation before it’s too late.

“The loss of innocence when it comes to people of color, is not fluff,” notes Watkins, who previously appeared in Barry Jenkins Golden Globe-winning The Underground Railroad. “It’s a ripping off of the Band-Aid for Kunle to know in his 20’s, people viewed him differently for the way he looked. I was given that talk when I was 9 but the movie shows for my character what a privilege it was for him not to have experienced it for so long.”

For Chacon, who has performed in Penny Dreadful, Pose, and Narcos, the opportunity to inhabit Carlos has been a refreshing career change in terms of ethnic representation. “In my career, I’ve died maybe 13 ways,” he laughs in a post-premiere press conference. “I am usually shot, stabbed, or blown up. I usually get cast as career criminals. So to read the part of a good-natured individual, who just wants his friends to stay together and keep everyone happy, was strange to me at this point.”

That power of perspective is what attracted Cyler, who made his Sundance debut in the hit comedy Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, to sign on for the film. “Perspective is definitely a thing that a lot of us miss because we feel like if it’s not our walk then it’s something that can’t be fathomable. We have to start and respect the case of, just because it’s not my story, doesn’t mean that it’s not somebody’s story.”

And while on the surface the film plays out as a college comedy that takes an unusual racial turn, for Williams, it’s really a love story about two friends whose friendship is challenged because they have a different worldview. Those different world views reveal a profound truth about what it means to be a young Black man in America.

Cyler sees EMERGENCY as a love story, complete with real talk between three friends. “Obviously, there is a serious subject, but not even the possibility of things going bad with the police, in the way that that perspective can become bad, can take away the sense of actual genuine love being shown between men. I think KD understood a lot of what was missing and what we kind of needed to bring to the light.”

For the filmmakers, the hope is to start a conversation; not one in which they aspire to provide the answers, but one to spark the questions that needed to be asked.