One movie, two takes: ‘Emergency’

Michael Bay’s Bad Boys is a classic blockbuster: action sequences, high speed car chases, drug lords and a hot damsel in distress, all wrapped up in comedy. That’s what people remember the franchise for. But the movies are actually about how Mike Lowry and Marcus Burnett — two archetypes of peak black men — fall and remain in love (as friends). 

“Fall in love” may seem incongruent but stay with me. When the first movie came out in 1995, the world had never really seen two black men depicted in that kind of positive relationship. And that’s what I mean by being in love. Besides physical intimacy, how is their relationship any different to a romantic one?

Enter Carey Williams’ new Amazon prime video feature, Emergency. It essentially repeats the Bad Boys formula only instead of the Bay explosiveness, it places its black leads — Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) — in a college dramedy filled with race and racism.

With three weeks left until graduation, they’re desperately looking for themselves. Kunle’s identity is wrapped up in being a successful black man in microbiology, although he’s terribly insecure about not feeling “black enough”. Sean didn’t have the stable upbringing that Kunle had and is envious of it. So, he’ll do anything to keep him by his side, including setting up a wild spring break challenge that involves them attending seven frat parties in one night. What could go wrong?

On their way to the first party, an unconscious white girl is found on their apartment floor and that sets off a series of misadventures and tests the limits of their friendship. The two friends, and their Latino roommate, have an intense debate before deciding to take the girl to the hospital. 

In an interview, Williams mentions that the relationship between Sean and Kunle is based on his relationship with his brother — how they have different views of the world and blackness but still find a way to come to a middle ground with love. We see this throughout the film but especially in a reconciliatory scene at the end that allows them to admit their fears to each other for the first time. 

Ultimately, the film doesn’t take any chances. There are the parties, racism, the suspense and the comedy but there isn’t much by way of a strong cinematic offering. There are interesting choices that seemingly want to elicit a reaction. There’s a scene where a white lecturer teaches a class on the N-word and repeatedly says it out loud. There’s a white couple, with a Black Lives Matter sign on their lawn, who ironically kick the friends off their street.

There are probably two scenes that felt cinematic. The top-down shot of Kunle on the tarmac after the police slam him to the ground qualifies, as does the scene just before that shows two white people sitting on a sidewalk in a soothing embrace, while two Latino people next to them sit with their hands on their heads.

I’ve accepted this movie as a family film about black love, even though it’s unnecessarily rated 18. If you couldn’t get your family to get into Bad Boys for some reason, this is your best shot at showing how black men can relate to each other. It will be a good family time, and maybe that’s enough. — Rifumo Mdaka 


Emergency starts with a rather long debate between roommates and friends Kunle, who is played by Donald Elise Watkins (the smart one), Carlos, played by Sebastian Chacon (the weedhead), and Ronald Cyler Jr, who plays Sean (the party starter), standing over an unconscious girl they find on the floor of their living room. A thrilling comedic satire released on Amazon Prime Video, the film documents the dramatic events that transpire when the three friends, one Hispanic and two black, attempt to rush the unidentified white girl to the hospital. But before that happens, Kunle, Sean and Carlos are in a bind. They can’t agree on what to do with the white girl on their floor. Call the cops or take her to the hospital? This is their last big night before spring break and the plan was to attend seven frat parties in one night, not this. Emergency uses humour to show the struggles of being young in college and simultaneously presents the complexities of racial discrimination as a subtheme.  

After Carlos puts down his bong, the straight-laced A student that is Kunle finally convinces his boys that they must do the right thing. If not calling the cops then it’s the hospital. But focused on partying, Sean suggests they simply “drop her off” at a hospital without being spotted so they can hit the frat parties. 

Fast forward to a couple of hours later, after a few comedy of errors, Carlos puts pedal to the medal as they rush to the hospital. This attracts the attention of the cops and suddenly it’s a high speed chase. They reach the hospital but, while Kunle is at the back performing CPR — and before you can say “freeze” — he finds himself staring down the barrel of a gun as a white officer tells him to step away from the girl. 

It’s then that you get a glimpse into the emotional distress and fear that black men face at the hands of white officers in the United States. Ironically, what they were trying to avoid is the predicament they ended up finding themselves in anyway. The reason for their earlier conundrum was Sean feared the police officers would blame “three brown boys” for having an unconscious underage white girl in their house. Racial discrimination doesn’t take a day off. The film’s producers captured the essence of black men always being the villains regardless of their intentions. Perception will always be above truth.   

Emergency presents the college experience in an exciting but subtle way. If you went to university then you’ll reminisce about the glory days that those years brought. The excitement and thrill of being young and carefree, but also of being open to experimenting and, most of all, the insane late-night parties that ended with you sitting next to a toilet.  
Emergency also shows how white privilege works in a society that is racially wired to favour one group and persecute another. So if you’re looking for a funny yet serious way to understand how simple situations can lead to life altering moments, this is the film for you. — Bongeka Gumede

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Rifumo Mdaka
Rifumo Mdaka is an editor who writes a lot about music and queer art with bylines in MTV, OkayAfrica, Bubblegum Club and other corners of the web.

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