THE FIRST PURGE: A Searing Howl Of Exploitation Anger

The First Purge is a searingly angry film, a scifi movie whose subtextual messaging is so barely subtextual that the film plays less like an alternate future than a prescient look at the day after tomorrow. The film is a howl of rage not at an imaginary Purge but at the slow and deliberate genocide being visited upon black and brown families in our country today, right now, a genocide carried out by cops and ICE and broken social service systems that not only devalue black and brown suffering, but possibly sees it as a perk.

If that’s a big statement to make about the fourth Purge movie, the fourth Purge movie is a big statement. As the blazingly political fourth film in a series, The First Purge is filled with the DNA of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, a movie that modeled its ape uprising scenes on footage of the Watts Riots. As a die-hard Apes fan this is not a comparison I make lightly; I don’t think The First Purge is as good as Conquest (screenwriter James DeMonaco is definitely no Paul Dehn), but it’s a descendant of that movie, and like Conquest I think The First Purge will play stunningly to future audiences who won’t quite be able to believe a movie this nakedly political and angry was also an exploitation quickie.

Caveat: I have not seen the second or third Purge films. I never felt the need; the first movie, written and directed by James DeMonaco, was lame-o trash, a white suburban bit of fearmongering cashing in on the tail end of the home invasion trend (book idea for the next decade: how the home invasion trend laid the groundwork for 2018’s anti-immigrant hysteria by creating narratives of imperiled white families). The backdrop of The Purge was way, way more interesting than the standard, boring home invasion narrative DeMonaco cooked up. And the concept of The Purge was actually lifted from an episode of Star Trek, “Return of the Archons” (DeMonaco confirmed this to me in an interview before the release of the movie). Burned by the lameness of the first film I just never bothered with the next two, which also seemed to use the idea of the Purge as the backdrop for a bunch of action in a story that could have been told without the scifi trappings (see: Judgment Night).

But the trailer for The First Purge pulled me back in. Finally one of these movies seemed to be addressing who would be the real victims of Purge night – poor people, marginalized people, people who couldn’t afford shelters or home security. On top of that, it’s a prequel – a word I know is a red flag for many, but when it comes to something like The Purge I found myself intensely curious about how all this shit started. It’s easy to write hand-wavy explanatory dialogue in The Purge and just skate past it, but now here was a movie that was tasked with actually depicting how this crazy annual tradition got started – and what the reaction was.

This perhaps ends up being the greatest surprise of The First Purge. Its depiction of this first wild night (it’s initially an experiment, confined only to Staten Island, New York) gives the film the space to make a statement about human beings: they don’t want to Purge.

Before we get to the fiery political content of the movie I want to touch on this spiritual content. Yes, spiritual content in a Purge film! The movie opens the day before the first experimental Purge, and we see that rather than a deeply welcomed night of catharsis, Americans are deeply divided about the whole thing. Many, many people protest the idea. The Pope denounces it. The European Union threatens trade sanctions against the US if it carries out the Purge. All of this stuff feels like the last couple of months of news, as the world realizes America is locking babies in cages, and the outcry in the movie universe has the same impact as the outcry in our universe – it’s a reminder that a lot of people still care.

In fact, the movie makes the argument that human nature is to NOT Purge. The experiment begins loaded, as the fundamentalist government of the US (The New Founding Fathers of America party), in league with the NRA (yes, the NRA is named as a supporter of the NFFA and, by extension, the Purge), pays people to be involved. That first Purge night isn’t just a free-for-all – Staten Islanders, especially low-income Staten Islanders, are promised $5k just for staying on the island during the experiment. And if they take to the streets and ‘participate’ the number goes up.

The NFFA is shocked to learn that when Purge night starts, things are actually very slow. There is some looting and some robbery, but violence is extremely rare. The first actual Purging comes at the hands of a maniac (Skeletor, playing by Rotimi Paul with such broadness that it’s possible he thought he was portraying the cartoon character of the same name). But most regular people are not interested in havoc, and in fact the brown and black communities of Staten Island come together to throw a big ass party.

I loved that. I loved that the movie is making a profound statement here – people are not bad. They don’t want to hurt one another. Our natural instinct isn’t to inflict pain, and given complete freedom what we would do is… get together in the street and have a good time. This is an especially profound message when applied to minority cultures in a country that has, in recent years, moved back towards criminalizing their very existence based on deeply racist belief that all people in these groups are criminal in some way. The fact that Staten Island’s projects erupt into a party on Purge night feels like a rebuke to all the white people going viral for calling the cops on black people hanging out and being black in public.

When things don’t explode the way the NFFA wanted them to, they take matters into their own hands. A few hours into the Purge a convoy of mercenaries, soldiers and cops disperse into Staten Island to begin enacting horrific violence and to put the true purpose of the Purge into focus: to eliminate lower class people.

This turn of events reminded me of the Democratic Socialists of America. They’re a burgeoning political movement, and I find their goals worthy and laudable. But when I went to their website and checked out their campaigns page, all I saw were economic issues. They, like many other radical liberals, seem to feel that class is where the struggle happens, that racial and other social injustice is, perhaps, a smokescreen created to distract us from the class struggle that is where the true action is. The elites foment racial strife not because they’re racists but because keeping the lower class white and black populations at each other’s throats allows them to maintain economic superiority and keep us in our places. I’m not saying DSA members ignore racial or other social injustice, but rather that my perception is that they are engaged in a line of thinking that finds economic injustice at the heart of all these other problems.

I used to think that way, but the Obama years disabused me of that. I’ve come to know enough well-to-do, successful black people to understand that even as they ascended into the economic 1% (or at least the top tiers of the 99%) they still remained profoundly oppressed; in fact the trappings of their wealth when transposed against their race made them extra targets for cops who simply couldn’t believe a black man could have owned a nice car legally. To me any platform that doesn’t explicitly address racial and other social justice issues outside of an economic frame is incomplete, and cannot solve the nation’s problems.

Okay, so back to The First Purge. The NFFA mobilizes these forces to spread violence in the streets of Staten Island, but they’re not just targeting ‘low income’ people (although that’s the language used in the movie). They drive out dressed in Klan robes and holding aloft white nationalist banners. They invade the projects wearing rubber masks that represent blackface (black skin, white rings around the eyes and bright red lips). They target not working class enclaves or poor white areas but the black and brown ghettos. They are a racial purification force.

This, to me, is the perfect distillation of how class and race are different issues in this country. The First Purge is incredibly wise about this; while the language is about ‘low income’ people, the meaning behind those words is ‘non-white.’ It’s here that The First Purge blossoms into an incredibly articulate howl of rage, where the line between the real world and the metaphor becomes so thin that you realize we’re right on the verge of this being real (and considering how insane the last two years have been do you truly doubt that America’s Kristallnacht would look sort of like The Purge?).

What The First Purge is dramatizing is stuff like the opioid crisis. When opioids were ravaging poor black communities nobody – not the media, not the government – cared. Addicts were not seen as victims of the plague but as criminals participating in it. But in recent years as the opioid crisis has crept into white communities it’s become an actual crisis, and the addicts are being humanized as they die in record numbers. The communities are poor, but the difference is that one group is white and the other is not. The reaction is determined not along class lines but along racial lines.

This is something black and brown communities have understood for decades, and The First Purge reflects back what they’ve been saying all along. There is a racial sickness at the center of this nation, and it infects the way policy is made and enacted; in the universe of The First Purge even something as brutal and horrible as The Purge is MORE brutal and horrible for black and brown people, and it is BY DESIGN. The movie stresses that this is not an accident; the mercs and soldiers and cops didn’t just end up wearing Klan robes. In fact, the movie offers us no evidence that these guys are actually dressing up – it seems as if they are simply being open. Unless I missed one, there are no black or brown members of these gangs. Every one of them is a white person.

The First Purge dramatizes and immediatizes the slow genocide being visited upon minority communities, which would be a total bummer… except that in the best exploitation (and specifically blaxploitation) tradition the tables get turned and the people get to fight back. This all leads to what I believe is the single most incendiary, vital and powerful cinematic image of 2018:

A black man strangling the life out of a white man wearing a blackface mask.

This is a good time to note that The First Purge is the first film in the franchise that DeMonaco didn’t direct. Wisely, the reigns of this film were handed to Gerard McMurray, a black filmmaker. There’s no way for we, as audience members, to know who contributed what along the way from The First Purge becoming an idea to it becoming a released film, but I have to guess that the decision to linger not on our hero doing the choking but on the mask of the white man being choked to death in that scene comes from McMurray. This is not a moment of moral ambiguity and it’s not just another death scene in a movie loaded with death scenes, it’s a moment of cathartic triumph.

And it’s likely that McMurray, who was an associate producer on Fruitvale Station, was the person who decided to have the Marcus Garvey Community Center play a role in the movie. The dropping of Garvey’s name (at one point splattered in blood on the t-shirt of a promising black athlete murdered in the streets by white racist authority figures) is a signal to the film’s politics. Garvey was a black nationalist – THE black nationalist – but one who pushed back against economic arguments for racial freedom. Garvey actually bristled at communism, believing it would be yet another system in which the white majority would exploit the black minority, improving the lives only of white people. This visual cue ties into the film’s larger message that the economic excuse put forward by the NFFA is a smokescreen, and that racial purity is what they truly seek.

Ironically the real world has outpaced The First Purge before it could hit theaters and now the conservative movement has become a racist, nativist force that makes no bones about its purity politics, and even relishes being openly white supremacist.

McMurray directed a previous movie – the hazing thriller Burning Sands – but has produced a few films. I wonder if that producer background served him well here, as The First Purge is a low budget movie that makes the most of its limited means. McMurray does some smart stuff that lets him get around his limitations; my favorite is an action sequence that takes place in the thick fog of smoke grenades – by blocking out the background McMurray not only saves himself set dressing or locations (they could have shot the thing in front of a black curtain in a gym, for all we know), he is able to focus on the action specifically. This scene is like the way a comic book artist will leave out the background in a particularly good fight scene, allowing the figures in motion and the sound effects to get all the attention. I absolutely loved this choice, and it – along with some really interesting photography inside the projects that utilize strobe lighting – convinced me that McMurray is a terrific filmmaker who, when freed of the Blumhouse budget, will likely be able to do some incredible stuff.

Probably the best visual touch in The First Purge is the addition of glowing eyes to Purgers. The in-universe explanation is that ‘participators’ are issued contact lenses that record the action for later study; these contacts glow in various colors, creating absolutely haunting and menacing imagery throughout the film. One of my favorite scenes has conflicted hero Isaiah (Joivan Wade, yet another British actor whose nationality I would not have guessed until I looked at his IMDB) walking down a dark alley while silhouetted figures glare at him through windows, their neon irises disappearing as they blink at him. It’s an incredible image, and McMurray uses those glowing irises along with digital photography’s ability to shoot in very, very dark settings to create eerie and thrilling moments.

Many of which will be reproduced in a Halloween Horror Nights maze. One of the fascinating elements of The First Purge is that, while it is an angry political movie, it also needs to be capitalistic in certain ways, such as introducing characters and situations that can be merched or replicated at the annual maze. One such moment has characters sneaking through the streets only to be confronted by a guy in advanced Leatherface mash-up cosplay – a stocky dude in a big apron, wearing a welding helmet with big horns attached to it. There’s a brief struggle and the characters run off. Look, you can’t have Klansmen or Kekistan nationalists in your haunted house, so they need to slide in a bunch of rando shit at the edges to sell a Neca toy later. 

Okay, so a few thousand words later… how’s the movie? Peel away all of the politics and stuff, how is The First Purge? I’ll tell you – I liked it, even if it were possible to separate out the political messaging (it 100% is not. If you’re a MAGAt this movie hates you). DeMonaco’s script isn’t great, but he does a nice bit of disaster movie structuring with it – he introduces some disparate characters in the third act and then has them come together and/or be killed off in the second act as the experiment begins. What the script does especially well is balance the need to have our heroes be triumphant in some way with the fact that the Purge goes on to be an annual tradition. There are a lot of clunky lines and characters don’t always behave wisely, and more often than not they seem motivated by archetype rather than any internal logic, but I have to say I refuse to hold modern exploitation movies to a higher standard than I hold older ones.

The lumpy script and characterization is papered over by some good, personable actors. Wade is great as Isaiah, a stock “good kid who lives in the ghetto and falls into drug dealing and decides that he needs to prove his masculinity by engaging in violence” type (this is the character who makes me think DeMonaco wrote this script after binging The Wire). His older sister – a fierce activist complete with earthy dreadlocks – is Lex Scott Davis, who happens to have another blaxploitation movie, Superfly, in theaters now as well. She’s wonderful, and I liked that her character of Nya is motivated not by her outward anger but by her inward love (this is such a weirdly fucking spiritual movie, man). She stays on Staten Island during the Purge because she feels it’s her responsibility to aid those who can’t get out.

But the centerpiece is Y’lan Noel, of Insecure. He’s another super stock character – the drug kingpin who, when the chips are down, stands up for the same community he has been destroying with drugs and violence – but Noel fucking rips in the role. He’s charismatic and has depth; in other hands his Dmitri would be pretty bland, but Noel understands that Dmitri knows he’s full of shit from the very beginning of the movie. Noel plays him like a guy who understands that he’s a stock character, and who knows that he can be better than that. And as the movie goes on and Dmitri becomes an action hero – he goes full John McClane, assaulting a building wearing a tank top –  and Noel becomes absolutely righteous. I think he loses the plot a little bit at the end, in the final standoff where shit gets kind of silly, but nobody is immune from the dopiness of jumping away from explosions (not even velociraptors, as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom showed us). Noel is incredible, and I hope that this role – and the impressive musculature he displays – puts him on a lot of casting directors’ shortlists.

It’s worth noting that Marissa Tomei show up for an afternoon of filming (one of her scenes is CLEARLY greenscreened, and another never shows her face so she didn’t even need to be on set when it was shot), and she’s fine. She’s given a lot of crummy dialogue and a not-great arc; she’s playing the academic who invented the Purge, and while she may not agree with the NFFA, she believes Purging is the answer to society’s problems. There’s a critique of the white feminist here – a woman who allows herself to be used by a patriarchal, racist system because she thinks she’s making a difference for people – but it’s such an abbreviated side story that it never lands. And I mean that on all levels – it doesn’t land as critique, and it doesn’t land as storytelling. I actually think you could cut her scenes out of the movie (cut out all the ‘behind the scenes at Purge HQ’ business) and the film would be improved.

And the kills! There are some pretty good kills in The First Purge, although a lot of the film is gunplay. That said, Noel’s John McClane stuff is often sensational, and there’s a great stairwell fight scene, as well as the great smoke grenade fight (ruined a bit by digital blood that looks like it’s from Mortal Kombat). But the best scenes of violence in The First Purge aren’t fun, they’re horrifying. Seeing blood splattered white nationalist bikers walking out of a black church where they’ve slaughtered congregants taking refuge is chilling. McMurray does it tastefully – getting too into the violence would risk turning Dylann Roof into an action hero – but with maximum impact. There’s other impactful implied violence, including white authority figures getting ready to lynch black people over a light post; McMurray shoots it so that the camera is looking down the rope, towards the noose, an angle that a lynched man would have.

But there are also fun kills, and as the movie moves into action territory the deaths of the mercs and soldiers and cops are satisfying and elicited more than a few cheers from me. And as a irredeemable giggler at bloody violence, stabbings, woundings and maimings in cinema, I giggled through large portions of this movie. I think McMurray walks a fine line here, honoring the exploitation roots of the franchise while still making a movie that has something to say and bothers to take the time to stop and say it.

THE FIRST PURGE isn’t as good as films like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes or Snowpiercer, but it has the same hot energy of social discontent that animates both those classics. That such a howl of rage should erupt in the fourth film in a meathead franchise is really an example of why exploitation movies are so great – filmmakers can be given free reign to say whatever they want as long as they hit certain marketability factors. McMurray throws in wacky masks and random brutal violence so that he can get his Marcus Garvey references in and have black people shooting the living shit out of white men in Klan uniforms.

I’ll take that hot energy over slicker production or even a better script (although, again, I think this script is just fine). On top of that, between Gerard McMurray, Y’Lan Noel and Lex Scott Davis The First Purge is a pretty exciting showcase of newer talent, another vital thing exploitation movies can do. The First Purge may be the cynically motivated third sequel in a middling franchise, but it explodes beyond the bounds of its budget and its corporate origins to feel truly dangerous and exciting and like the kind of movie that could actually get Fox News in a tizzy – and deservedly so.

Pay attention to this movie. This is a film that future generations will look back on as subversive and representative of this moment in time. Don’t ignore it because it’s part of a schlock series – examine it exactly because it’s part of a schlock series, and because of what it does with that schlock.