In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
Given The First Purge is first and foremost a horror movie, this may seem like a redundant question. Blumhouse Productions naturally want us to be afraid of a picture designed to make audiences jump and scream, but The Purge franchise has never been simply a series of jump-scare horror films. The most recent prequel, depicting how the concept of the Purge came to be, presents a deeper, more existential question which, by the day, seems to grow in power.
Should we be scared that The First Purge could actually, in some form, one day happen?
The deeper sociological and political quandaries posed by Blumhouse and writer-director James DeMonaco’s franchise have always been more intriguing than the storytelling itself in these movies. Don’t get me wrong, after the somewhat listless 2013 entry that opened the franchise—which presented itself more in the vein of a home invasion horror in the wake of successes such as The Strangers or Funny Games, no doubt to accentuate The Purge along more of an axis horror fans had responded to in the past—the franchise has steadily with sequels Anarchy and Election Year evolved into more of a grotesque action-thriller/horror spectacle, and benefited from that direction.
Though The First Purge may pull a trick many established franchises end up doing, spooling back to outline how the concept came to exist, it continues the same move from pulpy suspense horror into full-blown, city wide explosive mayhem.
The final act is basically Die Hard, simply with newcomer Y’Lan Noel’s black gangster Dimitri stepping in for Bruce Willis (he even storms a tower block in a white vest). There is nothing wrong with this, or indeed The First Purge in general which, for any fan of the franchise, will provide precisely what the previous two Purge films have given audiences – blood, guns, maniacs in masks, and social commentary about as subtle as a sledgehammer. It won’t bring anyone new to the table but is perfectly consistent with the franchise as a whole.
What The First Purge does do, however, is directly connect this series more acutely to the current political landscape than any of the previous films. Election Year, which came out in 2016, was produced just as the threat of the Trump presidency was hovering into view, and understandably was filled with the same kind of reflective hope that the pure madness of Trump would not come to pass; that film hinged on Elizabeth Mitchell’s white, middle-aged female Presidential candidate, a woman determined to end the Purge and the rule of the New Founding Fathers political/totalitarian party, attempting to survive what would end up being the final Purge which the NFF were using as a cover to disguise an assassination plot. She is more glamorous than Hillary Clinton, but the parallels are abundantly clear.
Election Year not only ends the Purge but, essentially, ends the franchise, given the NFF are removed from power and Mitchell’s progressive President vows that the tradition will never again blacken America’s soul. This was a film banking on Hillary winning the 2016 Presidential election and consequently that hope America can be saved from the abyss by a progressive candidate is visible. The First Purge was made, and lands, right in the middle of the second year of Trump’s first (and thankfully only) term as President – a term which already has been dogged by an incredible amount of controversy and actions which have begun changing America into a very different country.
By going back to how the Purge began, this has become a series which reflects the shocking reality of an America which has embraced an ultraconservative, extreme version of Republicanism for not dissimilar reasons as The First Purge suggests the NFF came to power.
The Purge franchise now takes place in an alternate timeline, essentially, given the events of The First Purge, according to the lore, take place around 2014, almost a decade before The Purge itself in 2022, by which point the tradition is embedded inside the American way of life as an accepted trade off to guarantee a society, 364 days of the year, almost removed from crime and economically in fine fettle. This is the crux of what the New Founding Fathers promise – in exchange for 12 hours of being able to commit any crime, including murder, once a year, we will guarantee a modern Utopia for the rest of the year and ensure prosperity and peace. What The First Purge does is reveal the very troubling lies and sociological realities that veneer is constructed upon.
The prequel establishes that the Purge came to exist following a test experiment on Staten Island, chosen specifically as a neighbourhood of low income, gang-run African-Americans, who statistically according to the data uncovered by Marisa Tomei’s social-scientist who initiated the concept of ‘The Experiment’ (which people swiftly start calling, colloquially, ‘the Purge’), are more likely to indulge in violent crime and prove the idea of an emotional release, state-sanctioned, may aid in the health and wellbeing of Americans as a whole. Without spoiling specific plot details, she comes to realise the NFF are not reliant entirely on speculative data and a conspiracy exists to establish the Purge for far more sinister reasons: population control, particularly among the poor and non-white minority ethnic groups of the country.
When the NFF are questioned on this, they point to an economic catastrophe which prefigured their own ascendancy and suggest they simply don’t have the resources to help everyone, but this too is a falsehood. It is peak capitalist ultraconservatism and proof the trickle-down economics espoused by every neoliberalist since Reagan is just a big, bold lie – it is no coincidence the NFF politician running the experiment in The First Purge is a WASP-ish, well-fed, preppy white male, because the entire cautionary message of The Purge franchise is about the 1% protecting themselves, raging against the dying light of Capitalism in a century where natural resources are rapidly dwindling and the growing populous are becoming ever more divided and restless.
The First Purge ends up being something of an ominous tale, given how the wilful depopulation of African-American minorities through the actions of a heinous US government do nothing to prevent a broader, national Purge being brought into effect, one which later is couched in religious, patriotic terminology. ‘Purgers’ are encouraged to “do their duty” as Americans by indulging their violent impulses and the state-ran rhetoric of the Purge project refers to God, being ‘blessed’ and in the ‘rebirth’ of America. The NFF’s ultraconservatism dangerously blends with the Republican propensity to engage with the devout Christian lobby, convincing many Americans who otherwise would lead law-abiding lives that for those 12 hours, God is happy for them to commit the worst crimes imaginable.
Now, going back to the original question, whether we should be scared that one day the Purge, or something like it, could happen… consider for a moment where American politics is.
The Trump Administration was not the New Founding Fathers. They were not (directly) advocating murder or even suggesting that indulging violent impulses, in the sight of God, is a good and righteous thing for America (well, maybe except when it comes to the gun control issue). What they were doing, however, bore a frightening similarity to the platform the New Founding Fathers were elected on in The Purge movies. Though The First Purge is not likely to be considered among the best movies of 2018, if you were asked to point to the most effective poster campaign of the year, The First Purge’s name emblazoned on the red, peaked cap usually bearing Trump’s mantra Make America Great Again could well come out on top.
Trump’s America was engaged politically in ultraconservatism that many suggested was slipping, day by day, further into fascist totalitarianism. Trump came to the White House (without getting the popular vote) by appealing to the middle-American demographic who have been ignored and depressed by years of economic strife epitomised by figures like Barack Obama (who was considered progressive and erudite abroad, but a divisive figure at home particularly on economic issues) and the aforementioned Hillary Clinton, whose connections to big business and established American power brokers Trump milked for all of its worth in his election campaign.
Trump managed to convince his supporters that his own wealth came from achieving the (mythical) American Dream (when it came rather from old money), and that he wanted to give back those same hopes and aspirations to Americans who felt like they had lost their country, lost their soul, and lost hope for the future.
Alongside this, Trump didn’t even couch his disdain for any minority group that didn’t fit the established, ‘all-American’ (read: white) standard that many of his voters felt had compromised American values, based on years of false propaganda.
He talked about building a Wall on the Mexican border to prevent illegal workers crossing into America. He talked about banning Muslims entering America, particularly from Middle Eastern countries, for fear they could indulge in terrorist actions on American soil (despite the fact most domestic terrorism is caused by far right American citizens) – which he has now managed to enact. He talked about shunning refugees. And he has now started deporting illegal immigrants and, most crucially, setting up ‘child prisons’ to keep the children of those deported families in confinement. Every day seems to suggest a new horror being devised by Trump’s White House.
I’ve discussed this before but the last several years has been an incredible time for the prominence of African-Americans in cinema, both in front of and behind the camera. The First Purge adds to this chorus, with Noel’s aforementioned Dimitri established as a strong anti-hero who protects a black community under fire from white supremacists essentially committing genocide on American soil under the guise of a social experiment, but it also seems to potently remind what would be considered ‘liberal’ America by ultraconservatives that while cinema may be working to push agendas that our government institutions are rolling back on (portraying African or African-American heroes such as Black Panther, LGBTQ rights in Love, Simon etc…), economic instability and media spin do not mean minority groups are safe from persecution in our modern age.
The First Purge won’t strike a chord like Jordan Peele’s Get Out did in 2017, serving as the darkest of satires on white supremacy and African-Americans in modern culture, because first and foremost it remains a pulpy horror picture as interested in blood and gore as in making a sociological point, but DeMonaco’s script (this time directed by Gerard McMurray, a black director) is grounded very pointedly in the reality of our current political situation. There is even a scene which directly references the “p*ssy grabbing” scandal around Trump’s recorded words, even if the President himself is not mentioned. The Purge films have previously commented on the broken aspects of American society, and the ghoulish underbelly beneath what ostensibly is a progressive nation, but this movie changes that. This movie is about America right now.
Jason (Blum) and all of us pushed to make The First Purge’s commentary even more clear than the other ones, more reflective of the time we live in, especially with regards to immigration policy. The series is becoming more topical as the world becomes more chaotic. I say that with no joy. That’s awful. [Laughs] I find no great joy that the [New Founding Fathers of America] resembles the Trump administration in any way, shape or form.
So should we be scared?
Could Trump’s Administration have gone this far? Could Americans, as fractured and desperate as many of them are in a society and economy vastly torn apart by inequality being directly promoted and controlled by the interest of an elitist group of power brokers and a propagandist media, be convinced something as Dystopian as the Purge could actually solve their problems and heal their nation? I don’t have the answer. Right-mindedly, you would think not. We live, however, in uncertain times. We can only hope democracy and morality win through as the Western world continues to be overpowered by regressive politics and far-right thinking, but it may take films such as The First Purge to continue shining a light on these issues through cautionary storytelling for us to wake up and smell the coffee.
Ironically, if there is one certainty about The First Purge I can promise you, it’s that it is not actually really all that scary, for a horror film. Perhaps in this instance, it gets a pass. The world it suggests we’re not a million miles away from is, quite honestly, scary enough.