Since the emergence of the “Woke Era” in 2014, we’ve seen an explosion of social protest in the mainstream. From police brutality (Black Lives Matter) to economic equality and LGBTQ rights, we’re in a time where these issues are not only at the forefront but profitable to fiscally savvy “activists.” But what happens when the rhetoric and marches are not enough? What is the plan of action when your enemy doesn’t care about getting “canceled” on social media and is gunning down your family members in the street? In other words, who protects the marginalized when the government-sanctioned violence starts? These are among the provocative questions set forth in The First Purge, the latest and most ambitious installment in the profitable action-horror franchise.
The first prequel in the series takes us back to the origins of the Purge, which allows for one night where the government allows every crime without penalty. The concept is derived from the mysterious scientist known only as The Architect (Marisa Tomei), who believes her work will stabilize society by allowing people to relieve their aggression. The New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), hope to use the Purge’s success to springboard into political dominance and eventually function as a form of population control. To test its effectiveness, the government selects the close-knit but poverty-stricken Park Hill projects section of Staten Island, NY. And to entice participation, residents are offered a flat $5000 just to sign up for the experiment with more financial incentives based on the violence they inflict.
Capitalism at its finest, right?
But for all their speculation and stereotypes about poverty and crime, the NFAA soon discovers that poor folks aren’t naturally violent. Instead of widespread mayhem, the neighborhoods opt for Purge parties. With the entire world watching, the NFAA resorts to sending in agent provocateurs, race soldiers and mercenaries to launch attacks and begin the civil unrest.
This leads us to our trio of main characters. Nya (Lex Scott Davis) is a community activist who’s protesting the Purge. She now has to save her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade), who ventured out into the madness seeking to avenge an earlier slight. Our most dynamic character is Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel), the local drug kingpin (and Nya’s former boyfriend) whose street acumen makes him the best candidate to defend and empower the community.
Gerard McMurray (Burning Sands) is the first person to direct a Purge film outside of series creator James DeMonaco. While McMurray does not have DeMonaco’s flair for over-the-top scene setting and atmospheric tension, he nails some effective bells and whistles. Th new Purge requires participants to wear specialized glowing contact lenses so the government can record the results. This gives everyone a ghoulish and unsettling appearance that turns downright demonic when dealing with the masked Purgers. Those well-versed in history will also have visceral reactions to hooded Klan members and soldiers in neo-Naxi regalia. Their paramilitary gear harkens back to the weaponry we saw from police in the Ferguson riots.
Disturbing imagery aside, The First Purge is far from trauma/torture porn. The residents arm themselves and valiantly fight back. Noel’s turn here is potentially star-making as he’s the most nuanced and complex character we have in this film and possibly the series. We see equal examples of the brutality that’s kept him in power (having one of his soldiers beat for wanting to Purge) and the decisiveness and charisma that inspires the loyalty of his crew. When you see them getting their weapons ready to defend their neighborhood, it’s a self-determinant militancy that’s rarely seen from black characters without glaring personality defects (see Black Panther’s Killmonger). They wipe out a crew of mercenaries that attacked a church and then arm the citizens. In the film’s most visually effective scene, Dmitri and the remaining soldiers face off in the project high-rise after the lights have been cut. The emergency lights kick in, giving us pulsing images of savage gun-fighting and hand-to-hand fatalities.
For all The First Purge does well when it comes to social commentary and the kills, the film is not without noticeable faults. The character Skeletor is so over the top and unbelievable for the setting that he threatens to take the film off the rails. Thankfully, his role swiftly diminishes as the plot gets going. The exposition elements early on venture into low-budget Netflix original territory and feel unnatural from several characters. This problem also becomes less noticeable as the film progresses, but it never completely goes away. Dmitri, after executing a Purge soldier, hits a *wink wink* gentrification one-liner about staying out of his neighborhood. And while actress Mugga does a fine job with the wisecracking Dolores, that type of comic relief character has no business in a movie like the Purge and only hurts the horror tension.
Missteps aside, The First Purge is doing something rare for horror franchises this deep in their run. Instead of playing it safe, it builds on the socio-political commentary from Election Year to drive home the ramifications of a government-sponsored extermination of marginalized peoples by the wealthy elite. And with our current combustible political climate, the franchise will continue to have ample material to evolve and reinvent a dystopian world that far too often hits close to home.