“Don’t give Kunle any trouble; this boy is black excellence. These are the words of warning to Sean (RJ Cyler) during the first act of director Carey Williams’ “Emergency.” They not only worry Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) – Sean’s best friend and the more academic of the two black students – but a warning to Sean himself: Kunle must be protected, even from you. It’s a phrase that clearly communicates the articulations of class and respectability that are mapped onto the two young men, pointing to the contrasting limits of each boy’s availability.
This feature adaptation of Williams and screenwriter KD Dávila’s 2018 short of the same name, “Emergency,” is all about the majority of its tense runtime with exploring that dynamic. Kunle is a first generation Nigerian American from a wealthy family. Their biggest worry about the young man – soon to be off to Princeton for graduate school – is that he is choosing to become the ‘wrong’ kind of doctor.
Sean, on the other hand, takes little interest in his studies and often finds himself subjected to benevolent but condescending lectures from Kunle regarding his potential. While Kunle is upright and dresses like “a substitute teacher” (a description Cyler delivers with usually welcome comic relief), Sean is laid back, preferring instead the social scene that college life provides and the welcome comforts of a variety of substances. He also comes from a working-class family who knows all too well how black people are systematically policed and policed in America.
While the differences between the two men seem to be perpetually bubbling beneath the surface of their relationship and day-to-day interactions, they come to a head when Kunle and Sean return home to their apartment and find an underage white girl passed out on their living room floor. Scared and unsure of what to do to help the girl and protect herself, the film becomes a series of anxious events that unfold alongside the harsh realities of Kunle and Sean’s equally convergent and disparate experiences as men. black.
What “Emergency” pursues in its academic structure of comedy and thriller is a treatise on respectability and cross-cultural unease as well as a sober, if sometimes blinkered, look at the ironies and contradictions of white liberalism. This is modeled on relative degrees of success, with aspects of the film’s vision that touch on politics that are at times overly reductive or simplistic in their presentation – this is a film that is not just about young people but also feels young in his self-positioning. Although overly simple in purpose and form, “Emergency” nevertheless reminds us and Kunle that respectability and code-switching will not save us; that white femininity, victimhood and authority can be weaponized against all of us.
“There’s still hope for him” is one of the film’s many sharp refrains that reference Kunle and his supposedly bright future. He is not only offered an abundance of hope, but also deemed worthy of protection because of it, and indeed much of the plot work “Emergency” does is in his service. It’s a particularly ugly irony that denies Sean the space to deny his supposed inertia and presupposed lack of future, only developing his character in relation to Kunle and his own self-awareness and perception of the world that surrounds him. ‘surrounded. The greatest disappointment of Williams’ film, then, is not the banality of its style and narrative mechanics or even its safe and easy politics in search of an equally wide audience, but its reluctance to disrupt, with weight heavy and heavy, the exact things he reviews.
Note : R, for pervasive language, drug use and some sexual references
Operating time: 1h45
Playing: Streaming on Amazon Prime Video