The First Purge is a furious response to the hot-button issues that American society is currently facing. In a time when shootings and scandals are so frequent that conversations of political change have the shelf life of a trending hashtag, the film is effective as a screaming, damning condemnation of perpetuated prejudice, economic inequality, and the problematic normalization of community tragedies.
The film begins with scenes of Staten Island’s preparations and protests leading up to the first Purge event. Selected because of its “demographic representation”, Staten Island will be ground zero for the New Founding Fathers’ 12-hour government sanctioned experiment.
Participants are psychologically screened with a series of questions to gauge their personal levels of anger and frustration. As an incentive, residents will be paid $5,000 to remain on the island. Any additional participation (tracked by advanced contact lens cameras and implanted tracking devices) will result in bonus compensation.
The “Architect” of the experiment, Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), hopes to determine if this purging could alleviate the anger and tension we carry through our daily lives, theorizing that it would decrease crime rates and support a better quality of life. While offering financial incentive for violence in a low-income community encourages participation for the sake of tracking results, it’s probably not the most ethical way to conduct an experiment.
However, because the experiment is funded by the New Founding Fathers (the NRA supported and financed political party in power), it’s clear that they’re not seeking to examine results; they’re hoping to prove the viability of a nationwide Purge.
As a franchise, The Purge has always had a strong focus on themes of class and racial division. Even going back to the first entry in the series in 2013, the framework of a home invasion horror film allowed subtle discussions of how corporations were able to monopolize on the structure of the violent annual event and how those preparations were skewered in favor of the affluent households who could install elaborate security systems.
While upper-class neighborhoods were snug in the safety of their home, purgers could target those of a lower economic status who were unable to afford the same cautionary measures, leaving them obviously vulnerable to persistent attacks.
The structure of Purge Night “allows a release” for everyone’s anger with the convenient side effect of lower crime rates and higher employment. Obviously, the economic benefits aren’t due to the nation’s emotional release. By “purging” as a means of population control, The New Founding Fathers found a way to eliminate those of a lower social caste. In The Purge, it’s notable that the preppy mask-wearing purgers are in relentless pursuit of a lone Black male target.
In 2014, The Purge: Anarchy shifted the events of Purge Night out of the suburbs and into the city streets where audiences were introduced to the idea of intervention from those with power. Parties flooded with wealthy bidders were centered on the opportunity to eliminate targets selected from urban areas. The Purge: Election Year highlighted the political gain found from the annual Purge, and the steps that would be taken to protect that.
The First Purge does not present its message with subtlety – it’s a response to the ongoing issues of the systematic oppression and blatant disregard for the lives of minorities and the poor.
Now, as a White girl from Canada, I am poorly equipped to speak on the experience of being Black in America. But with nods to the Charleston church shooting, police brutality, white nationalists, and a pussy grabber, and with dialogue like “I am worried about this country, I am worried about our future” and “government doesn’t give a shit about any of us”, the point is clear.
The Purge experiment is designed and manipulated for the justification of a national-level event. For a prequel to go back and explain why the events shown in the previous films came to fruition using such socially-charged examples from our current headlines is bold, but it works.
The film follows Nya (Lex Scott Davis), an active Purge protester and strong source of support in her community, and her ex-boyfriend, Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), a high-level dealer with a crew of loyal soldiers.
Dmitri is a pillar in the community because of his reach and economic success, but Nya is saddened that he’s refusing to acknowledge the destruction caused by the impact of his business. She addresses this with him in a conversation about perpetuated community violence that nods to the long-running war on drugs. We all make choices to heal or to hurt, and it’s clear what choices he’s made.
This sentiment – while poignant – does get muddled when the survival of the community must rely on Dmitri’s experience with violence for their safety.
A hiccup with The Purge franchise is that these strong socio-political messages of economic disparity and racial division end up on the sidelines during extended scenes of violence for the sake of violence.
On the one hand, the nature of the Purge event itself is violent, so of course violence in The Purge series is expected (as it is with the majority of horror franchises). Excessive violence in horror is bankable – it’s not a necessary element in a good horror movie, however, it’s a mainstream expectation that sells tickets. That said, it does tend to distract from each film’s message.
The First Purge introduces the idea of purgers doing non-violent illegal activities, like massive block parties where no permits or liquor licenses are needed.
The second act blends in a heavy dose of ancillary violence, though – for the most part – it’s justified by the storyline. That said, the film gets a bit lost when trying to balance the responsibility of a socially-charged message with the duties of carrying its own plot.
The carnage of the third act brings the focus back to the film’s thesis.
Purging attackers roam the streets in KKK robes and modified police uniforms, systematically hunting down the diverse residents of Staten Island. An assault on a building full of residents is enacted by heavily armed White men in minstrel masks. The First Purge does not pull any punches with its imagery.
It’s also worth noting that all on-screen protagonists are people of color with a number of strong female characters, which is wonderful – both for on-screen representation as well as the strength of the film’s message.
All of this may seem incredibly heavy-handed (and it is) but it speaks to a desire to be heard.
As with the prior entries in the franchise, the ending falls a bit flat after the anticlimactic 12-hour conclusion alarm sounds. Everything that was built and discovered in the preceding 40 minutes (or so) of action is unresolved, and because we have the other entries in the franchise as a spoiler, we know that nothing ever really changes.
Perhaps it’s a bit too Nihilistic, this knowledge that there’s nothing that could stop the Purge from becoming the annual event we know it to be. Like the numerous protests and conversations on reform in our own lives, we’re still at the mercy of those “higher-up” decisions.
Or maybe it’s just a fast way to wrap up the events of the film with no additional thoughts on closure. Either way, it feels sudden and incomplete.
The First Purge – at its heart – is about the indestructible spirit of resistance. It’s about community, it’s about family, but it’s framed within this action fueled Attack on Precinct 13 meets Do The Right Thing vibe (with a touch of Die Hard flair). It communicates a passionate anger, but the structure of presenting those ideas within a popular franchise may be more limiting than liberating.
Overall, I enjoyed the film. It’s far from perfect, but it’s the strongest entry in The Purge franchise so far. If this bold entry is any indication of the direction the series is moving towards, I’ll definitely keep watching.