'Emergency': How Sundance hit blends college comedy with real-life fears of being Black in America

EMERGENCY, back, from left: RJ Cyler, Sebastian Chacon, Donald Elise Watkins, front: Maddie Nichols, 2022. © Amazon Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection
RJ Cyler, Sebastian Chacon, Donald Elise Watkins in Emergency. (Photo: Amazon Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection)

As heightened as it may seem, the incident that leads three college students of color into a tangled moral dilemma in Amazon’s acclaimed new dark comedy thriller Emergency is more realistic than you would think.

Determined to spend one of the last nights of their senior year party-hopping, aspiring biologist Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and his aimless, fun-loving best friend, Sean (RJ Cyler), see their plans shot when they come home to find an unknown white female (Maddie Nichols) passed out drunk on their living room floor.

“It's loosely inspired by things that have really happened to friends of mine. Several friends of mine, actually, have had random drunk white women show up in their dorm room or apartments,” says KD Davila, who originally wrote Emergency as a short film — that, as directed by Carey Williams, ruled the film-festival circuit in 2018, picking up awards at Sundance and SXSW, among other stops, before the pair adapted it into a feature-length film. “It's weirdly more common than you would think, especially if you live around a college campus.”

Kunle and Sean, both of whom are Black, and their roommate, Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), who is Mexican American, grapple with calling the authorities. Though Kunle insists it’s the right thing to do, Sean reminds him how many Black and brown men have been killed for far less.

EMERGENCY, from left: Donald Elise Watkins, Maddie Nichols, 2022. © Amazon Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection
Maddie Nichols in Emergency. (Photo: Amazon Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection)

It’s a heady, somber, visceral twist on the film’s setup, which promised a night of boozy, smoky, flirty debauchery before forcing viewers to confront the protagonists’ reality, conjuring images of police brutality witnessed in recent years and the inherent assumption of guilt attached to one’s skin tone. And it’s what makes Emergency tick.

“We wanted to tell a story that was about something that a lot of people of color experience, which is this culture of fear of the police and the absurdity of living in a society where a lot of people of color, especially men, are burdened with this obligation to anticipate how they're being perceived at all times,” says Davila, who is Mexican American and grew up in Los Angeles. “It led to the idea where if you're in an emergency situation, you have to think, am I more afraid of the emergency, or am I more afraid of calling 9-1-1? I mean, obviously that's absurd, but it's also a reality.”

“Goldilocks,” the guys nickname the inebriated young blonde in the film. “I guess that makes us the Three Bears,” Carlos quips to an unamused Kunle and Sean in a line that encapsulates the film’s true comedy-of-discomfort tone.

“The humor was going to come from how they are reacting to each other and how the f*** to deal with this situation and this night,” explains Williams. “And that seemed to work. That seemed to be the thing that kept it grounded.”

Spoiler alert: They do not call the cops, and instead attempt to transport Goldilocks to the hospital before a series of obstacles (a police barricade, pissed off frat boys, a broken taillight, infighting, etc.) intensify their drama. Through it all, it feels like the guys are prisoner’s to Goldilocks’s safety, which they have to put over their own as they fear she could succumb to alcohol poisoning.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 12: Carey Williams and KD Davila attend the after party for the Los Angeles Premiere Of Amazon's
Carey Williams and KD Davila attend the after party for the Los Angeles premiere of Amazon's Emergency at Directors Guild of America on May 12, 2022 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Davila and Williams proved a perfect match when they were paired together as part of Film Independent’s Project Involve fellowship, which helps young filmmakers develop and produce six original short films. They shot Emergency the short in 2017 during the tumultuous first year of Donald Trump’s presidency with events like Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally dominating headlines.

“It’s a comedy about something that’s very serious,” says Williams, who admits he was both impressed with and afraid of Davila’s short script the first time he read it. “But I quickly realized that that was what made it special. That was the special sauce of it, that it was looking at something like this through an unexpected lens.”

Expanding the short into a feature (shot in 2021 before premiering at Sundance in January) allowed Williams and Davila to expand on the absurdity of the situation and further develop the characters and their friendship.

“It’s just trying to present a reality, and also start a conversation,” says Cyler, who first broke out in another Sundance hit, 2015’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and imbues a constant live-wire energy to Emergency.

“I think there’s a ton of films about social issues that try to present you with a narrative and this one really doesn’t,” says Chacon, a theatrically trained actor who’s appeared in numerous TV roles, including on Pose and Narcos and brings oddball vulnerability to Carlos.

“I love that all these characters get a chance to kind of grow and go on this journey,” says Watkins, who’s appeared in bit parts in movies like Pitch Perfect (2012), Get On Up (2014) and First Man (2018) but is poised to land a lot more leads after his soulful turn as Kunle.

The actors recognized the tonal tightrope they had to walk in approaching such a dramatic matter with plenty of levity.

“It’s pretty honest. I think it just walks along the fine lines of reality, to be truthful,” says Cyler.

“You’re always looking for the happiest ending you can, right?” asks Chacon. “Like, ‘How is today going to be a comedy? How is it not going to be a tragedy?’ And throughout it all we’re trying to make light of it until we really can’t anymore.”

The short drew comparisons to Jordan Peele’s celebrated Oscar-winning horror movie Get Out. The feature, however, is drawing most comparisons to a vastly different movie, and it has from the moment it premiered at Sundance: The raunchy 2007 “One Crazy Night” buddy comedy Superbad, albeit always with a twist or a sprinkle.

“A suspenseful thriller that’s somewhere between Superbad and Very Bad Things.” “It’s like Dope meets Superbad, but with something timely to say.” “A deeper take on Superbad.” “Will bring Superbad to mind, or rather, who’s afforded that carelessness.” “What do you get when you combine the coming of age comedy of Superbad with the commentary of Blindspotting?” “Superbad without the privilege.”

The cast and creators don’t mind.

“I’ve heard it a lot, and I’m gonna embrace it because one, I think that’s a phenomenal film,” says Watkins. “I think that’s just a huge form of flattery. … I’ll take that every day.”

“If you look at it, it's definitely a deconstruction of that type of movie,” says Davila, who earned an Oscar nomination this year for her short film, Please Hold, a dark futuristic comedy that similarly explores the intersection of bias and law enforcement. “The way we saw it was these guys thought they were gonna be in Superbad. Like that’s what they signed up for, ‘We’re gonna have a Superbad night. It’s gonna be amazing and epic. And then they do not end up in Superbad. … They’re not allowed to be in Superbad.”

Emergency opens in select theaters Friday before premiering May 27 on Amazon Prime Video.

Watch the trailer: