On the same day that a new social thriller starring one of Bollywood’s foremost actors arrives in theatres, the under-the-radar Sundance hit Emergency, a wickedly entertaining film also about issues that plague minorities, has landed on Amazon Prime Video.
Essentially a One Long Night movie about three friends who discover an unconscious girl in their house and attempt to get her to the hospital, Emergency is a taut thriller that, over 90-odd minutes, continues to surprise and shock in equal measure. Peppered with relentlessly suspenseful set-pieces and clever use of humour, the film ends with a close-up so powerful that you’ll feel like you’ve been knocked on the side of the head.
RJ Cyler plays Sean, a perpetually vaping college kid who likes to think of himself as street. His best friend is the far more academically inclined Kunle, played by Donald Elise Watkins. “He’s Black excellence,” Sean’s friend says, warning him not to lead Kunle astray. But as everybody probably knows, Sean doesn’t need to do much. The universe itself seems to be conspiring against young Black men.
They learn just how drastically the odds are stacked against them when they return home one night, hyped about a party they’ve been looking forward to attending, and discover a white girl lying face-down on the floor in their living room. Sean has seen this film before; he forbids the more straight-laced Kunle to call the cops, and suggests that they drive her to the hospital themselves. They enlist the help of their Latino friend, Carlos.
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But even though the hospital is just 10 minutes away, their journey is chequered with obstacles. They can’t, for instance, be caught in this situation. Three Black and brown youths with a passed-out white girl who probably looks underage? Nobody’s going to believe them; deep down, they know this. It also doesn’t help that Sean’s car is a beat-up old van. “We get pulled over, we die, Kunle. We call the police, we die, Kunle. We breathe the wrong way, we die, Kunle,” he yells in a moment of panic.
And this is the modern American tragedy at the centre of Emergency. Society has antagonised an entire community to such a degree, that even doing the right thing has become virtually impossible. You’d think Sean, Kunle and Carlos were planning a crime. But what struck me was how easily this scenario can be transported to India, and be recreated almost beat-for-beat. You wouldn’t even have to change the title; in fact, it would be perfect.
Emergency also examines the hierarchies within the Black community. “You’re basically white,” Sean scoffs at Kunle at one point. Later, when they make a pit-stop at Sean’s rough cousin’s house, Kunle hides in the bathroom. He’s been earmarked for success; he can’t get in trouble. “You’re going to have a Wikipedia page about you,” Sean says proudly, describing Kunle as the “Barack Obama of fungus.” But even with his gifts, in the eyes of his peers and the law, he’s someone who should be looked at with suspicion. This is the reality that no amount of scholarships and accolades can change. This is the hypocrisy of American society. For instance, there’s a Black Lives Matter banner outside the house of the white couple that threatens, at one point, to call the police on the guys.
It’s so powerful, then, to witness Kunle perform CPR on the unconscious girl in the film’s edge-of-your-seat final moments. The scene unfolds like a symbolic reclamation of the events that led to George Floyd’s death. Emergency is a genre thriller that owes a great debt to the films of Spike Lee and Jordan Peele. It’s tightly wound, uncompromising in its anger, yet also a beacon of kindness. A terrific achievement.
Director – Carey Williams
Cast – RJ Cyler, Donald Elise Watkins, Sebastian Chacon, Sabrina Carpenter, Maddie Nichols
Rating – 4.5/5