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There have been numerous films about college students and their strong belief that major partying must be part of a 4-year degree program. They’re often completely focused on characters getting as drunk or high as they can because next is adulthood and they must “party while we still can.” The new film Emergency begins with a scene of a white college professor lecturing on hate speech and the power of words. In the back of the room sit buddies and roommates Sean and Kunle. They’re distracted with talk about an upcoming “legendary tour” of seven house parties. Once the N-word is placed on the professor’s classroom screen, these Black young men become quiet as they debate the appropriateness of the lesson and use of the word. This opening sets a path that subverts the traditional direction of college party films.

We quickly learn that Sean (RJ Cyler) is pushing the big tour while Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) is more concerned about the biological cell cultures he is studying in a laboratory. This sets up the differences between these two young men and their basic approaches to responsibility. Kunle comes from a family of doctors while Sean has a brother on the edge of town who appears a bit more directionless. Sean has all the visions for how the parties and evening will turn out based on the traditions we’ve all seen in movies, television, and perhaps within our own personal experiences. All of this is broken though when they discover an unconscious girl in the house they share with their other roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon). How did she get there? Will she be okay? The biggest question though centers around how they should handle the situation.

This is where the narrative charts its own direction from other similar films. The guys realize that if they call the police they run the risk of being questioned, as Black men, about their involvement. Kunle, in particular, wants to do the right thing as he has been certified in CPR and, of course, he’s concerned about how this will affect his upcoming move to Princeton University.
Both young men are fully aware of the dangers of racial profiling by the police. As such, the film ventures away from the typical traps of this genre by exploring philosophically how a Black man must proceed cautiously. Might this affect their ability to help the white girl? Should they even try? Even between Kunle and Sean there are differing perspectives. Kunle is accused of being “not black enough” to understand the possible severity of the situation. They have a major disagreement on the matter that in part stems from their own cultural differences. As they cart the girl around town and towards a hospital, their discussions reminded me a bit of the growing revelations between the two characters on a road trip in Alfonso Cuarón’s classic Mexican film Y tu Mama Tambien. Friendships are on the line as they realize that they aren’t as alike as they might have once thought.

Director Carey Williams does a great job of balancing the tone so as not to take the plot of K.D. Davila’s Sundance award-winning script in unrealistic directions. Think of the innocent fun within Greg Mottola’s Superbad, which takes a ridiculous and screwball diversion when the boys meet the officers played by Bill Hader and Seth Rogen. (Yes, I know some people love this scene but for me it takes away from the otherwise great set of young male relationships being explored in the film.) Williams allows for plenty of laughs but this is not meant to be an outright comedy. Rather it is a more serious exploration of how words and the color one’s skin can land the unsuspected into life-threatening predicaments. Sean jokes that as they go on their journey to save the girl they must dress up in Kunle’s “substitute teacher” clothes to appear respectable and not “too black.” They know full well where all of this can go. Even Carlos, as a Mexican American, must deal with the victim’s sister Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter) who believes, based on what she is seeing on the surface, that he is just as guilty as the Black men for committing whatever crime she believes they’re committing. Because Carlos looks more Mexican than the hot guy in a toga she has just met, she’s shocked to later learn they are cousins.

Throughout Emergency, rather than hoping the guys make it to their drinking tour, we’re instilled with the sadness of racial profiling, racist language, and the realistic paranoia among young Black men. In that sense, the film goes much deeper than typical college-themed films and takes us squarely into an ongoing social problem. Yet the film never feels overly preachy. There is a warmth to the film and the characters that make the proceedings all the more real. The stacked cast also adds layers to the characters, making them feel all the more rounded, and far from the college stereotypes many of us have grown accustomed to. Again, credit must be given to director Carey Williams for shining light on our current social climate while also creating something that is entertaining and far from disappointing about college life – unless you’re looking for Animal House 2



Written by: Dan Pal

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