The Sundance Film Festival kicked off Thursday and Friday with two movies centering on the African-American experience, and it’s not a pretty sight. In fact, it’s quite painful.
But both films are well-made and well-directed and well-acted. And both should be seen widely.
The first, “Emergency,” is in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. It’s directed by Carey Williams, and it centers on a well-known genre — the wild night out for young adults, on the cusp of graduating from college.
RJ Cyler stars as Sean, a stoner who’s smart but who has grown up in a world where he knows how a Black man can be humiliated and scarred. His best friend is Kunle, whose name sounds like Kool-Aid. He’s about as preppy as you can get. He’s smart, focused and destined for Princeton. He’s played by Daniel Elise Watkins, and it’s clear that he and Sean are from different sides of the tracks — and have had different experiences as an African-American man.
These two decide to engage in a spring break night of epic partying, securing passes to various fraternity and sorority parties on their campus. They have yet another roommate, Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), who spends most of his time with his bond and video games.
When Sean and Kunle go back to their house before partying, they discover Carlos in his usual situation, wearing head phones, playing video games and getting stoned. But there’s a big problem. There’s a young white girl, passed out in the living room. She has a pulse, but she’s unconscious. What do you do?
Kunle, being a straight and narrow kind of guy, says they should call 911. Sean, knowing what might happen when you’re Black and reach out to the police, says there’s no way they should call the authorities. Carlos, not knowing what to do, sort of sides with Sean. And then they decide they should take the unconscious girl to the hospital.
Thus begins a road trip that turns into a night out of hell.
More importantly, the evening begins to show a debate between the two best friends — one who believes in the system and thinks honesty is the best policy, and the other who thinks the system is rigged against Black folks.
There won’t be any spoilers here, but let’s just say that one dude has a great awakening.
The other significant African-American movie on Sundance’s opening weekend is “892.” It deals with an ex-Marine named Brian, played brilliantly by John Bodega. He has been denied his disability payment by the Veterans Administration, and he’s on the verge of homelessness.
He has pleaded with the VA to reinstate his payments, but the bureaucracy has thwarted him every step of the way. He lives apart from his wife and his daughter, and he feels as though he has been cast aside by the United States after serving his country.
The movie, directed by Abi Damaris Corbin, is based on a true story of an ex-Marine who walks into a Wells Fargo bank in metropolitan Atlanta, and tells a bank teller that he has a bomb. The teller and the bank manager, both of whom are minority women, try to stay calm and navigate the tricky task of getting everyone in the bank outside.
But the situation escalates in classic “Dog Day Afternoon” fashion.
Nicole Beharie plays the manager, while Selenis Leyva plays the teller, and both are compassionate yet terrified by Brian’s takeover of the bank — and the possibility of being blown up.
Michael Kenneth Williams, in one of his last roles before his death, plays the negotiator, a former Marine who bonds somewhat with Brian and tries to get him out alive. Connie Britton plays a local TV news producer who takes a call from Brian during the crisis.
Corbin keeps the tension high throughout “892,” and she is bound to be a director to watch. This is her first feature film.
Single film tickets to online Sundance screenings are available festival.sundance.org/tickets/#