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'Emergency' cast discusses comedy, racism at Sundance

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'Emergency' cast discusses comedy, racism at Sundance
RJ Cyler stars in the comedy "Emergency." File Photo by Chris Chew/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 25 (UPI) -- The cast of the comedy Emergency, which premiered virtually at the Sundance Film Festival, said the film uses humor to address issues of racism.

RJ Cyler, who plays Sean, a college student hoping for a night of partying, said the film reflected how he uses humor to cope with intense real-life situations.

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"That just comes naturally," Cyler said at a Zoom press conference. "In a lot of traumatic situations, we try to find the comedy to cope."

Sean and his friends Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) are ready to hit seven parties in one night. When they find Emma (Maddie Nichols) passed out and vomiting, they try to take her to the hospital first.

The night gets worse when bystanders suspect the boys of kidnapping the girl simply because two are Black and one is Latino. Emma's sister, Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter) also chases after the boys with her friends.

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Chacon said when the trio are in jeopardy, it may be funny to the audience. However, the actors invested in the danger, Chacon said.

"You're not playing the laugh," Chacon said. "We're kind of suffering. You laugh a lot of the time just because of the absurdity of it."

Watkins said he related to Kunle discovering racism for the first time in his sheltered life. Prior to the night of Emergency, Kunle had been fortunate enough not to experience overt racism until he got to college.

Watkins said he discovered racism as young as 9, though he preferred not to describe the specific incident. However, Watkins drew on that for moments in which Kunle's attempts to help Maddie make White people suspicious of him.

"One of the things that really stuck out to me was the loss of innocence when it comes to people of color," Watkins said. "Once your eyes are open to it, now you can spot it, now you can see it and then it happens more and more frequently."

Cyler said Emergency gave him the opportunity to say what he wished he might have said during real life incidents. Cyler said he often remains quiet when he finds himself in intense situations to protect himself.

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"In the moment of these things, you've got so much to worry about and contemplate, so your reaction has to be paused," Cyler said. "It definitely gave me an outlet to finally cry in that moment."

Even before they discover Emma, Sean and Kunle encounter a tense situation in a classroom. The teacher offers a trigger warning before she writes the N-word on the white board and insists on leading a class discussion about it.

"It's not a comfortable feeling," Watkins said. "On the set it's a safe space, but it's still jarring to see."

Cyler said he had similar experiences in schools growing up in Jacksonville, Fla. Cyler said he appreciated the scripted moment when the teacher changes the spelling of the word to end in the letter A, and asks if that makes it better.

"Baby, either way you say it, we don't like it," Cyler said.

Emergency takes place entirely in one night. Watkins said he believes the events of the film will inspire Kunle moving forward.

"I really think that some type of Black mentorship is definitely going to be in the cards," Watkins said. "He's a helper. He wants to help everybody."

Cyler said the intense experience of Emergency may inspire Sean to take his studies more seriously.

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"I wouldn't be surprised if I see Sean with a girlfriend and a book in his hand," Cyler said.

Carlos struggled with social anxiety while in college, and Sean did not even want to invite him to the parties. Chacon said helping Emma enabled Carlos to assert himself more.

"It's a really self-life-affirming thing for Carlos," Chacon said. "I think it's hard to go back to being a person who hides in a cave all the time."

Amazon will release Emergency in theaters May 20 and on Prime Video May 27.

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