Emergency: Meet the Filmmaking Duo Who Crossed Harold & Kumar with Get Out for a Sundance Hit
“Emergency” begins with a fairly familiar college comedy premise — a party challenge.
Best friends and seniors Kunle (Donald Elisa Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cuyler) set out to hit up every major Greek party on their campus circuit, something that was long ago dubbed a “Legendary Tour.” But being two young Black men in a not-your-average college party movie, the fun is over before it begins. Their epic night is abruptly interrupted by the sudden appearance of a young white girl, who the guys find passed out in their living room. Together with their friend and comedy sidekick Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), this trio is faced with an impossible dilemma: Whether to call 911 or not.
What ensues is a darkly funny social satire that teeters on the verge of horror at every turn — a scathing reflection of the everyday occurrences that can too quickly turn horrific for young Black men.
That premise fueled the short of the same name to a Sundance Jury Award as well as taking home Best Narrative Short at SXSW in 2018. The film marked the first collaboration between director Carey Williams and writer K.D. Dávila, who met during Film Independent’s flagship inclusivity program Project Involve, which counts amongst alumnae the likes of Jon M. Chu, Justin Simien, and Lulu Wang.
With so much interest in the short at SXSW, Williams announced that they were working on a feature before even discussing it with Dávila. “I came up with the idea basically on the spot that day, as he’s started telling everyone I was writing it,” the screenwriter told IndieWire. “I was like, well, the only version I can see that makes any sense is one that all takes place on one night. So that’s the constraint I put on myself. … I like to take a concept that you’ve seen before and try to turn it on its head in some way.”
The short ends with what is essentially the inciting incident of the feature, with the guys finding the girl and discussing their options. While innocent Kunle’s instinct is to call 911, the street smart Sean insists that involving the cops will most definitely not go their way.
The feature follows what happens afterwards.
Quantrell Colbert/ Amazon Studios
“[I knew we had to] get them out of the house and into the world, because a big part of this is these young men of color are thinking about how are they going to be perceived in the world,” said Williams. “We wanted to talk about the absurdity of these guys having to really think about — how are we going to be perceived as we’re trying to do the right thing and help this girl to safety? So getting them out of the house was a great way to explore that fear they have to think about, which is absurd, and there’s going to be humor that comes from that, hopefully.”
An Oscar nominee this year for her short film “Please Hold,” about a Latino man stuck in an automated prison after a wrongful arrest, Dávila is carving out a signature style that subverts dark comedy and genre filmmaking to highlight the absurdity — and terror — of systemic racism. Williams says though his taste typically leans towards drama, the humor in Dávila’s script both intrigued and challenged him.
“I was like, ‘I’m scared of this one because it’s a humorous take on something that’s just not funny,’” the director said of his first encounter with the script. “We don’t want to make light of this situation. I know I don’t. But I was like, ‘I think the humorous angle on it is what is the special sauce of it.’”
A true collaboration, the duo worked together to expand the story. Dávila is Mexican-American and grew up in Los Angeles and had witnessed colorism affect members of her family firsthand, but she drew on Williams’ experiences to inform the specifics.
“I checked in with [Williams] a lot. I would pitch concepts for scenes and I would always run them by him,” she said. “He is a Black man from the south and he brought a lot of his experiences to me and … I put them into the film.”
Carey Williams on the set of “Emergency”
Quantrell Colbert/ Amazon Studios
One of Williams’ major sticking points from the start was to ground the narrative in the friendship between Kunle and Sean. Though he laments the loss of certain funny scenes, anything extraneous to that central relationship had to go.
“It really is for me a love story. I wanted to show a complex relationship of young Black men on screen that I feel like I don’t see that much of,” he said. “Because we have to be so hard, we feel like we have to protect ourselves at all times. And that’s true, but it can be very detrimental to our mental health and our psyche to not be able to express our emotions. So I wanted to show other young Black men that see this that it’s OK to be emotionally vulnerable to their friends, to their loved ones.”
It had heat on it from the start: Dávila’s screenplay made the 2020 Black List of most popular un-produced scripts from up-and-coming screenwriters, and Temple Hill Entertainment and Amazon Studios announced in April 2021 that they would be producing it. In January, the “Emergency” team returned to Sundance to premiere the feature, where it was met with positive reviews and another win for Dávila in the form of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.
Thanks to the script and dynamic performances from three relative newcomers, “Emergency” walks a fine line between being highly entertaining and delivering a dose of reality. While the film doesn’t end in total tragedy, the palpable shift we observe in Kunle speaks louder than any more dramatic ending could. Whether comedy or drama, the film is a product of the unique fusion between Williams and Dávila’s visions, achieved by expertly weaving vital real world issues into an equally satisfying college comedy.
“It needs to be something that’s really going to be impactful, make people not only feel seen but make them think about and question things,” Williams said. “I don’t feel like my art ever needs to feel like an answer. It needs to feel like a question and cause debate. Something that people will be like, ‘Oh, I never really thought of that.’ Something that will be lasting.”
“Emergency” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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