‘Emergency’ addresses race and law enforcement while walking the fine line between comedy and drama
Carey Williams’ feature now screening at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival
Three college roommates discover a passed-out and intoxicated high school girl in their home a few days from graduation. The caveat is that these roommates are minorities and the girl is not.
This is the scenario of Carey Williams’ film “Emergency” that is screening at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
The film, which is a comedy-drama, follows roommates Sean, Kunle and Carlos, played respectively by R.J. Cyler, Donald Elise Watkins and Sebastian Chacon, as they contemplate doing what is right and alerting the authorities while being fully aware of issues surrounding race and law enforcement.
Upon discovering the girl, Kunle wants to call the police, but Sean is opposed to the idea over concerns of how the officers would see the situation that involves two Black men, one Latino man and an unconscious white woman.
The situation, as well as another provocative scene that takes place in a college classroom where the professor uses the N-word in an academic setting, were inspired by true events, said screenwriter K.D. Davila, during a virtual press conference Sunday morning.
“The kind of big, in-your-face classroom scene at the beginning of the movie happened twice at my undergrad and my grad school,” she said. “And the situation of being a person of color finding an unconscious white girl on your floor has happened to several of my friends.”
Davila, a Mexican-American television writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, remembers one incident where her friend wanted to be the Good Samaritan.
“My friend, who is also Chicano, figured out where she lived and took her home,” she said. While he was in the car, the thought about getting pulled over by the police with a passed-out white woman in his car chilled Davila’s friend to the bone.
“He had this realization that this (situation) did not look good, and told me that it was the longest drive of his life,” she said.
Davila also drew on experiences of race and perception her own family has endured.
“I grew up as one of the paler people in my family, and I started noticing this phenomenon with my dad and a lot of the other men in my big Latino family,” she said. “The men had to do this strange calculus in considering how they would be perceived any time we went anywhere.”
The men would assess and ask themselves if they seem threatening and how they could do things that would make them not seem threatening.
“I saw a bunch of times when they were trying to do their best to anticipate how they were being perceived, and still got pulled over and (their vehicles) searched for no reason,” she said. “Often the excuse is ‘You matched the description of a suspect.’”
In “Emergency” audiences will see how Sean, Kunle and Carlos are perceived through their appearance, according to Davila.
“One of the themes of the film is trying to see how these men are being perceived and how they make every effort to anticipate this,” she said.
“Emergency” started out as a short film with a different cast in the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. The film won the short film Special Jury Award, and Williams decided he wanted to make it into a feature.
“We had some success with the short, and I kind of put it out there that we were making a feature without kind of talking with KD first,” he said with a laugh.
When Davila heard Williams wanted to flesh out the story, the two decided to talk about how to go about it.
“We wanted to stay true to the tone of the short film and keep that comedy/thriller tone,” she said. “When we originally made the short film, we didn’t make it as a proof of concept for a feature. We wanted to make sure it deserved to be a feature film and that the story could be sustained for an entire movie. So it was a journey.”
One of the things the two decided was to make sure all the events happened in one night.
“(We wanted the audience to be) with the characters, watching them make these decisions, and watching the dominoes fall,” Davila said.
In creating a new cast, Williams looked at the body language of the actors before they did any auditioning.
“I look for how they come into the room and how their personalities were, but there’s really no one thing I look for,” he said. “You’re trying to see how well you’ll get along with the folks. With this film, I think everyone came in and nailed it.”
Cyler was cast first, and Wiliams set up readings with Watkins and Chacon.
“We did chemistry reads with R.J. and Don came in and that chemistry was so good,” he said. “We then had Sebastian come in and that chemistry was dope.”
The actors, especially Watkins and Cyler, dipped into their own personal experiences with racism to bring depth into their characters.
“I was 9, and I always harken back to when I first really felt something racist,” Watkins said. “It’s not like it could be something else. Once your eyes are open to it, you can spot it, and it happens more frequently. And I got really emotional when I was doing my prep work.”
Cyler used the film as a form of therapy to address his past experiences with racism that could have potentially ended in injury or death.
“It was more of a thing where I could now get to react as if I would have in the moment, (because) in the moment when these things happen you have so much to worry about and contemplate, so your reaction has to be paused,” he said. “People ask why didn’t you do anything? And it’s because I definitely thought about my life. It’s young Black man stuff and it’s a tumultuous thought process, but it wasn’t too far to go, because it’s not far-fetched from everyday life.”
Carey Williams’ “Emergency” is screening online at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. For information, visit festival.sundance.org.
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