I went into The First Purge with moderate expectations. The previews had revealed a significant amount about the film’s premise, and I’d seen the additional three Purge movies before. I didn’t have much hope that a prequel would be uniquely terrifying, but I was expecting it—especially, given its name—to contextualize the bizarre process of “purging” that these Purge films have contrived, to explain how “the purge” came to be in a world where we’d like to assume that most people are fundamentally good and basically non-violent. That expectation was definitely met, and I thought that in achieving this goal, The First Purge made some bold statements about problems in our country and where we could be headed. I argued in an earlier piece that I saw some “problematic presumptions” embedded in the originally released purge, (simply titled The Purge). Well, this film answered my qualms in a clever, incisive way. I should also warn you at the outset that my analysis contains a lot of spoilers, so only read on if you’ve seen the film, don’t plan on seeing the film, or aren’t bothered by rather specific previews!
The film foregrounds Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her younger brother Isaiah (Jovian Wade) who live in a lower income neighborhood on Staten Island, sometime in the presumably not-so distant future. They live in a world run by a corrupt government whose initial name was “The Founding Fathers” and who are in love with guns, violence, and protecting rich people (in other words, the dystopian leadership is not something this country hasn’t seen or isn’t seeing). Marissa Tomei plays Dr. Updale, the somewhat emotionally and physically removed academic who comes up with the idea of The Purge, which is readily adopted by the government in power. The government decides to test the purge in a low-income neighborhood; for one night, all crime will be legal, and the government hopes that, in a country fraught with problems, individuals will release anger with this chance to expel violence in a consequence free environment. Despite the fact that individuals on Staten Island are offered a hefty sum to “participate” in the purge (kill others), very few do, at which point the government sends in brutal gangs of white men highly trained to kill, and disguised as purgers, to create the façade that the purge has been a success.
I hardly need to say more, because the scenario speaks for itself. While, in later purge movies, individuals are primed and ready to take part in “the purge,” which has become, by that point, an established tradition, in this film, only one particularly disturbed individual named “Skeletor” kills at random and for fun. Others who stay on Staten Island for purge night are drinking and dancing at purge parties or barricaded in a local church experiencing community while listening to an admittedly cliché, less-then-exciting sermon that they mock slightly. So while later purge movies seem disturbing because they suggests that individuals are violent by nature and need to release their violence, the film’s message alters when contextualized by the prequel. If given the chance to kill legally – and if offered monetary gain by the government (who will track purgers movements with video cameras embedded in contact lenses) – the vast majority of individuals simply won’t do it.
Or will they? Because there are violent individuals in this movie, obviously, but by and large they aren’t members of the low-income black community that’s targeted, and that’s the most important element of the film, to me. In a country where racists and fascists arguably pose the largest threat to individual welfare and social stability, it’s still a bold stance to depict that reality qua film. Get Out did a brilliant job highlighting active, existing racism in white America, and while this film isn’t quite as artful, metaphorical, or insightful, it’s still an excellent film, and I thought it did an effective job at supplementing the implications of Get Out. First, the government sends in armies of large white men who are trained to kill, in order to “control the population” by killing members of the low-income, mostly black Staten Island community. These trained killers have tattoos on their arm to designate their professional status, and they hail from different countries. Then presumably free-floating, non- government fascists in KKK-style hoods enter the neighborhood and continue the slaughter and havoc. It’s an incredibly disturbing to watch. In fact, my only reservation with the film is that white supremacists could get a sort of high off some of the scenes depicted, but I think the message is worth the risk. This is our present and our future: the justified killing of blacks by whites and the concomitant tendency to wrongly frame African Americans as violent and dangerous. Again, it shouldn’t be a bold statement, but it is, and I imagine this movie could thus be quite controversial.
The role of the government and the media are also critical in this film. Again, the government sends in white operatives with bandanas over their faces to incite the violence, to make it look like people are purging, and then the media sells that violence to a consuming public. The situation is plausible and the process mirrors, arguably, similar patterns that hold in contemporary society. (Major spoiler here): The government’s power is so strong that it’s highlighted by the fact that all the main (black) characters in the film come to understand what’s going on and live through the ordeal, but as viewers, we have no reason to believe that justice will be served (indeed, we know from other purge movies that the purge will continue). Michael made the interesting point that he saw this as problematic for a moment, before he realized that sects of white America discredit the experience of minority groups today (see controversy over the Black Lives Matter movement, for example) so it’s believable that this would also happen in a dystopia where race relations are even more problematic and inequitable. I would agree with this insight and would add that the scenario, the fact that the main characters live and know the truth but still have a fight ahead of them, underscores the level of power and manipulation that the imaginary (but not-so-imaginary) dystopian government has achieved. The film’s government is essentially a fascist government, and the film is thick with distrust of white male authority. To that extent, it’s a strong sign of the times and current sentiment among large groups of Americans about present leadership.
But the film does even more. It takes a black gang leader, William (Y’lan Noel), and makes him a hero, which is an incredibly subversive but pleasantly surprising move for contemporary cinema. When William becomes privy to the conspiracy that is taking place, to the violence that’s being incited in his neighborhood by the government, he immediately rounds up the other members of his gang, utilizes his rather extensive arsenal of weapons, and puts his life on the line, with gusto and courage, to protect his community. One will note that before he enters this heroic position, he kills a rival gang member who (unsuccessfully) sent two women to kill him. After the experience he sardonically states, “well I’ve purged, I should feel better now.” A man whose life is comprised of violence thus understands that violence doesn’t make us feel better—to him it’s a necessity—but the government doesn’t understand its futility. When William gathers his crew and his weapons to defend the black community, and when other main members of the film join him to protect their home, the film, I think, lends a strong nod to Malcolm X. Malcolm X didn’t glorify violence, but he strongly affirmed that unlike those backing peaceful protest and resistance, blacks would defend themselves, physically if necessary. In this film, such self-defense is undoubtedly necessary, and the main characters do defend themselves.
In short, this is a progressive film that positively depicts members of low-income communities and takes today’s problems to create a believable dystopia where oppression, government manipulation and social control are amplified. My personal perspective on the Purge movies has changed considerably after piecing them together. The first time I saw The Purge I saw a dismal statement on human nature: the importance of violence to maintain peace and relative prosperity. But taken together, the Purge series makes a much more intelligent statement than that. In the prequel (this film), the government begins the purge in a low-income community, unsuccessfully offers huge sums of money for violent actions, and starts to send in their own men to provoke violence when this tactic doesn’t work. We learn that if given the option, most people will reject violence and murder (even theft), despite financial rewards. In the film that was released first, the original The Purge, we meet a rich man who profits from the purge by selling security systems, and now we understand how the purge ritual came to be, how it proliferated. In the second film we meet a hero who’s trying to save purge victims, and in the third movie we meet a woman who’s started a movement against the purge, suggesting that despite government efforts, many, if not most individuals, will ultimately reject socially-sanctioned bloodshed. This perspective—the message that all the films, together, deliver—makes more sense to me, and make the Purge series a strong example of effective contemporary social commentary.
As a forewarning, this film does have more of an action vibe than a horror vibe, but, as stated, a lot of truly horrific things happen within the plot despite the fact that it consists mostly of guns firing. Movies with a lot of random shooting usually don’t do it for me (for as much as I love horror, I could do without 95% of the action genre), but I thought this film was really fantastic in what it sought to achieve. It’s IMDB rating was only a 5.7, and it got a 45% on Rotten Tomatoes, but as an ardent defender of many mildly unpopular, not-so-critically acclaimed horror films, I’m here to assert that this is a film with a strong message that’s worth seeing. Indeed, its ratings may be so low because it’s saying things that most people don’t want to hear. Nevertheless, if my review hasn’t spoiled every surprise for you (there might still be a few twists I haven’t mentioned), then I’d definitely recommend seeing this film. It serves, I think, an important purpose.