Fourth in the sequel and (more significantly) out on Independence Day, 4th July, The First Purge aims to explain the reasoning behind the annual night of legalised thuggery and carnage – 12 hours of no laws – that has both intrigued and chilled audiences for five years. That’s if your investment in the franchise has lasted this long. Not to be written off so readily, the 2018 film has some blatant racial and social issues to digest that had Trump’s administration not been in power would be critically buried as far-fetched fiction.
In the latest episode, the right-wing government of the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) wants to keep an election promise of reducing crime (sound familiar?) below one percent for the rest of the year. To be seen to be doing something, it decides to enlist the help of ‘The Architect’ Dr Updale (Marisa Tomei) and put her sociological theory about venting aggression to the test in the largely black/Hispanic Staten Island community. Each resident will receive $5,000 US dollars to stay put in the area during the crime spree – and more to purge. When things do not go according to the white ruling party’s ‘social cleansing’ plan, they decide to incite racial hatred and accelerate matters.
Writer James DeMonaco has always given us plenty of food for thought in the previous films that are brimming with social commentary. Whereas they suggest the least powerful members of society are the targets, this one shouts it from Staten Island’s rooftops: America’s poorer black and Hispanic communities are under siege. DeMonaco goes one stage further with racial stereotyping, with the most powerful black man in the local community being a drug dealer and those hunting en masse being Klan and Nazi attire-wearing white folk. This film makes absolutely no apologies: It’s an unsettling watch.
African-American director Gerard McMurray confidently takes these ‘black and white’ portrayals, coupled with gun and drug crime issues and reflects it back with glaring ferocity. On face value, there is just violence and more violence, the kind a B-rated film tends to get away with. The finger is also pointed at the anonymity of tech giants orchestrating the ruling party’s whims – such as the sci-fi eyewear here.
A strong sense of community that lingers afterwards is expected – cheesy ‘survivors walking arm in arm’ end shot aside. What is not is a healthy breeze of change. Indeed, recent times in Hollywood sees growing diversity – and Lex Scott Davis as activist Nya may tick the strong female protagonist role box too. However, what happens here is a social one: the feeling of hope that is weirdly galvanising, as though a revolution against those in power in real-life is being ignited via the big screen.
Granted, the characters’ obvious comments to the effect begin to grate, but writer and director intentionally add these in the script so that the status quo does not feel like a depressing slaughter fest. We are all in need of a hero, so Die Hard fans will lap up the one-man combat scenes, with Y’lan Noel as drug lord Dmitri like a vested black McClane on a mission in a housing block.
Still, on the flipside, the ‘enjoyment’ of killing – be that via knife or gun crime – does not go unchallenged here. It feels very topical, almost too close to the bone and ‘irresponsible’ given recent global news reports. McMurray even favours close-up moments of death through the eye of the perp. One could argue that that forcing the issue might bring about discussion. Sadly, this is a tenuous argument here and maybe not the right platform. This film’s actions are about revenge against oppressors, even if peace and community are just around the corner after 12 hours are up.
The First Purge is a mixed bag. It’s definitely divisive and borderline glorifies violence. However, it’s not altogether superficial either. It empowers as it champions change and industry diversity on screen. Without question it gets the viewer to address where they stand on all the societal issues it raises which can only be a good thing.