Race satire meets teen buddy comedy in Amazon’s ‘Emergency’

LOS ANGELES • “Emergency” begins like any coming-of-age buddy comedy. But its young heroes’ night of party-hopping hi-jinks quickly takes a more serious and sinister turn — in large part because they are Black.

Unlike white characters from genre classics like “Superbad” who emerge unscathed from playful interactions with bemused cops, college students Sean and Kunle panic when they find a high-school girl passed out on their living room floor.

Fearing what might happen if they dial 911 in such a compromising scenario, they rope Latino housemate Carlos into helping ferry her to hospital, setting off a series of hilarious and terrifying consequences.

“It seems like it’s gonna be a ‘Superbad’ or a ‘Booksmart’ type of movie — I feel like even the characters want this so badly to be like a teen comedy,” the movie’s writer KD Davila told AFP. “They want it to be that, but it’s not, it can’t be.”

“Which is a fucked-up, bitter reality of what it’s like for a lot of people,” agreed director Carey Williams.

At the heart of “Emergency”, out in US theatres on Friday and on Amazon Prime Video next week, is the constant and everyday burden placed on young men of colour whom society is quick to perceive as a threat.

Growing up, Davila said she “saw this phenomenon where my dad and other men in my family, especially the ones who were darker-skinned, had to do this strange calculation every time we went anywhere, (of) considering how they’re being perceived”.

“You can make those calculations and you can do your best to project ‘innocence’ or whatever. But it doesn’t matter sometimes. You can still get pulled over and searched for no reason.”

Davila and Williams turned those observations into a short film, winning awards at festivals including Sundance and SXSW in 2018, before Amazon and a cast including pop star Sabrina Carpenter came aboard for this year’s feature-length version.

The intervening period brought the death of George Floyd, the explosion of Black Lives Matter protests and a greater focus on diversity in Hollywood, but the filmmakers reject the idea their film is “topical”.

“This is literally not new. We’re glad that people were talking about it and engaging with it. But the idea that it had to get to this point was a little surprising,” said Davila.

In a nod to the superficiality of society’s change, an indignant white couple film themselves confronting Sean and his friends simply for parking at night outside their home — the lawn of which proudly bears a “Black Lives Matter” sign.

For Williams, the film is an opportunity to delve into the young friends’ relationship and their different approaches to handling “Black masculinity and vulnerability”.

Clean-cut and trusting Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) doesn’t initially feel he is treated any differently due to his skin colour, while cocky and macho Sean (RJ Cyler) has had a fear of authority seemingly drilled into him by lived experience.

This contrast leads to the pair making very different choices over the course of the night — each of which Williams hopes the audience can empathise with.

“There is a lot of humour…in the way they reacted to each other trying to do the right thing and get out of the situation,” said Williams.

He added: “The film should raise questions about how these young men have to manoeuvre through the world.” — AFP