The Purge franchise has always served as satirical horror, even as its political elements have become more overt with The Purge: Election Year. Satire often works best when there’s a message behind it, but this is now a problem with The First Purge.
Director Gerard McMurray and screenwriter James DeMonaco have directly lifted moments from the real world, including the rise of Trump, police brutalities, the Russian collusion investigation, and mass shootings. There’s even an unmistakable joke on the “grab them by the p—y” controversy. Instead of re-contextualizing these moments or presenting a new argument, The First Purge veers so forcefully towards exploitation that its message gets lost among all the “F— you”s to the Trump administration. I’m not fully convinced there was much of a message to begin with beyond playing out a revenge fantasy on the Trump regime.
A prequel for the Purge franchise, this fourth installment bears many of the familiar markings of a Purge movie, only now we learn how it all came to be. The New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), a clear parody of the Trump administration, rose to power through funding from the NRA and a diet of fear-mongering. When Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei) came along with a psychological experiment on the human condition, the NFFA used it as a legal way to violently target impoverished and marginalized communities. It starts with ground zero for the experiment, Staten Island. Despite pushback, the government takes advantage of the low-income areas by offering thousands of dollars as an incentive to participate in The Purge.
The main folks trying to survive the night this time around are Purge protestor Nya (Lex Scott Davis), her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade), and her ex-boyfriend Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), the leader of a drug-dealing gang. The Purge films have always explored racial and societal tensions ever since Dwayne (later Dante) broke into the Sandins’ home in the original movie, and The First Purge taps a predominantly black and Latino cast. That alone brings a chilling implication: if the NFFA’s goal was to decimate this population all along, it would seem that they ultimately succeed based on how the first Purge film focused on predominantly white characters in suburbia.
Each participant in The Purge is dehumanized into the lab rats of the NFFA, mirroring how people of color are dehumanized by the pennants of racism. They are implanted with trackers and given a set of contact lenses that, while acting as surveillance cameras, give them a bestial look with glowing eyes. One character, a wasting away druggie named Skeletor, is transformed into a meth-head take on Freddy Krueger with syringes strapped to the back of his hands.
DeMonaco doesn’t mince words here: these marginalized people are “under siege from a government that doesn’t care” about them, as Dmitri declares during a rallying scene. The rest of the film’s politics are just as heavy-handed, but don’t seem to offer anything of substance.
Earlier in the film, a man from Dmitri’s neighborhood ponders about the NFFA turning Staten Island into its own Colosseum. Are they going to be the gladiators fighting each other for everyone’s entertainment? The First Purge, in the end, is meant for the audience’s violent entertainment. We see scenes of policemen beating a black man to death in the middle of a baseball field, hired guns dressed as hooded Nazis riding through the streets, and white men waving white flags as they shoot up a church filled with black families. These moments are clear references to events like the white supremacist march in Charlottesville and the Charleston church shooting. In the context of the film, they are exploited to enrage the audience. We see these images and, all of a sudden, are now meant to cheer on Nya, Dmitri, and Isaiah to be our gladiators and participate in the very thing they’ve been fighting. We're just running on fumes without seeing any real nuance from material that so heavily tackles the all too real political climate.
In a way, the entire series of Purge films has been taking the temperature of the disenfranchised at various intervals. 2013’s The Purge focused on a wealthy, privileged family surviving the night, while offering the question, how are low-income families holding up? That answer came with Anarchy in 2014. With 2016’s Election Year, the birth of the Trump era came to the forefront. The First Purge now taps into the still-escalating anger of the anti-Trump Resistance over the president's policies. It's this anger that's inciting characters in the film and the viewers watching them. This revenge plot still doesn’t make it any easier to watch something like the lynching of black people used for our entertainment, especially when there doesn’t seem to be a point in the end. The fictional actions are less defendable when they are intentionally trying to hew so close to current conflicts.
The actors themselves are left to work with similarly hollow material. Noel establishes himself as an action star to watch as Dmitri delivers some of the most believable and creative fight sequences of the current summer slate, scenes that also lean into that tone of pulp absurdity. The First Purge tries to maintain some comedy with exaggerated lines like “We are all Staten Islanders tonight” and Dr. Updale’s dramatic “What have I done?!” moment.