The First Purge
Dir. Gerard McMurray (2018)
The New Founding Fathers of America decide to perform an experiment, a period of 12 lawless hours on Staten Island, in this prequel to the first three movies.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
With rising economic uncertainty, escalating street violence, and an increasing divide between the political parties of America, the New Founding Fathers of America establish a third party, sweeping into power (and the Presidency) after receiving support and funding from the NRA. It makes sense, then, that they would pretty much immediately establish an experiment on Staten Island in which citizens would be paid $5,000 if they were willing to stay on the island and participate in a 12-hour, one-city initial purge. What initially sounds like a fantastic premise for the prequel that everyone wanted to see turns quickly into a mush of basically-racist plot and crude filmmaking.
It feels like a straight-to-video sequel that every 80’s property seemed to receive, the American Psycho II of the Purge franchise. The writing is lackluster at best, the acting is more hit than miss, and the whole thing feels more like a fan film than a big-budget Hollywood sequel. The cinematography, at least, is competent enough to make the movie look halfway decent, though you’re not necessarily going to want to see what’s presented on-screen. A movie that should have been about racial injustice, government abuse of authority, and the oppression and suppression of the poor and disadvantaged becomes a question of whether the government is completely wrong in what they’re suggesting.
The movie seems to want to do everything it can to make the Purge look like a good idea, showing a Staten Island that seems to be only populated by gangsters, drug dealers, and junkies. While it does reveal that these characters are (rarely) more complicated than their appearances suggest, they’re still mostly hardened criminals that are difficult to have much sympathy for. Sure, there are random, generally law-abiding citizens caught in the crossfire at times, but the central players all should be in prison. Gone are the nuanced portrayals of POC who are hardened by their circumstances, their societal pressures, and an overbearing Police State that insists on prosecuting even minor drug offenses: these guys are moving weight and gunning people down on the daily, Purge or no Purge. The film often does the opposite of what it intends, and by insisting that all of the characters whose stories we see play out are POC, and once the white folks start coming in waving their Confederate flags and wearing their hoods, it becomes a “who is worse” comparison rather than good guys vs. bad guys. In the end, the movie seems to make the statement that white people are bad because racism while black people are bad because drugs.
What’s interesting about The First Purge is that it shows how an idea that seems almost moderate in comparison to the ideas presented in the previous films’ world can be used by the people in charge to achieve their final goals. I’m certainly not arguing for a 12-hour period of lawlessness, in Staten Island or otherwise, but I understand that sometimes desperate times breed desperate measures. With the world progressing the way that it is in reality, it’s not a far reach to believe that, eventually, some politician somewhere would suggest the Purge for real. The downfall of The First Purge is that it manages to take a terrifying idea that is so terrifying because it seems like it could really happen and make it a completely unrealistic and stupid movie filled with insincere commentary and racial “I-told-you-so’s.” Instead of portraying its POC characters are righteous, it insists that they’re almost all bad people. The film’s only excuse for this is a half-hearted attempt to blame their actions entirely on the white government. The main character of the movie, a brutal drug kingpin named Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel), says at one point in the movie that the US government has sent all of these guns and explosives into the hood hoping that they would all kill each other, and since that didn’t happen, they were coming in to do it themselves. The problem with this whole thing is that they absolutely were killing each other, simply taking the night of the Purge off in order to protect their massive stashes of narcotics from other drug dealers who would be using the Purge as an excuse to rob them. They specifically state this in the movie. The drug gang is armed to the teeth, including with C4-like explosives, but that’s just cuz they had them laying around after the government gave them to them? Come the fuck on, it’s a dumbass argument in order to make it look like the violent Black criminals aren’t violent at all and that they’re just holding on to these guns peacefully.
The previous movies were subtle commentaries inside a seemingly-ridiculous premise. There is violence in people’s hearts, but only because they are tired of being held down by the people above them on the social totem pole. Racism provides an excuse for violence during the Purge holiday in The Purge, while Anarchy deals with poverty and Election Day deals with politics. The three (arguably) most tenuous divides in our country are effectively parodied, showing the possible ultimate end result if society doesn’t change its ways, while providing legitimate critique to the very real social inequalities that the poor and POC experience on a daily basis. The First Purge wants to bash you over the head that white people are bad while somehow making POC look almost as bad. Black people are violent, drug-dealing, gun-toting criminals, but at least they’re not racist. Is that really the message you want your film to portray? The nuance from the previous films is ignored in favor of a cookie-cutter bland mimicry of The Handmaid’s Tale with race substituted for gender, and what should have been a complicated look inside the inner city before the institution of the Purge instead becomes an unintentional rebuke on Black society that makes it look like everybody lives inside The Wire.
Who this movie is for: Purge fans, Social horror lovers, Racists
Bottom line: Absolutely horrendous movie that does the worst possible job of continuing the themes of the first three films. Almost all films pertaining to race have some sort of nuance to them, but this one ignores all of that and continually shoves its nonsense down the audience’s throat. The acting is barely there, the script is terrible, and this one might as well be forgotten. It’s a prequel everyone wanted handled in the worst way possible, one that yearns for a remake from someone who is able to cogently get the terrific social commentary of the first three films. How in the hell DeMonaco wrote the first two and this one, I’ll never know. The only reason this film isn’t rated lower is because it came out in 2018, right when the barely existent wheels were falling off of the Trump administration.