The First Purge (2018)

The First Purge is a prequel to the other three Purge films that have been released thus far, describing the genesis of the project in which U.S. citizens are allowed to commit any crime, within a twelve-hour period, without fear of legal repercussions.  The sociological experiment, led by the NRA-funded current fascistic political regime referring themselves as the NFFA (New Founding Fathers of America), is marketed as a way to substantially reduce the crime rate throughout the rest of the year, though behind the scenes, it is meant as a way to exterminate the burden of people below the poverty line, who are seen by the NFFA as a weight that keeps American society as being truly great.

An interesting wrinkle is the NFFA assumption that people in lower-class neighborhoods, set here on New York’s borough of Staten Island, are mostly criminals who don’t commit crimes, at least not openly, because they want to avoid legal entanglements.  Despite money being given to those who ‘participate;, as the Purge begins, there are very few of the expected crimes being committed, causing the powers-that-be to go into panic mode and contemplate having to kick-start the action into a chain reaction to make sure that their experiment produces the desired results to take things nationwide.

Much of the action surrounds a handful of interconnected characters that we come to know and, in some instances, root on.  Nya (Lex Scott Davis, Superfly) is a leading anti-experiment activist (it isn’t officially called a ‘purge’ yet in this prequel) trying to urge the other residents to ‘fight the power’ that seeks to make what’s about to happen in their neighborhood the norm across the country, though she feels she must try to protect as many locals as possible by ushering them into the sanctuary of a revered local church in the community for the evening.  Nya had once had been in a relationship with Dmitri (Noel, House of Another), a big-time drug dealer in the community, who also agrees that the Purge is not something he or his partners in the business need to engage in, despite being on the wrong side of the law every other day of the year, and orders his peeps to stay home and ride it out to avoid skirmishes with rival gangs out to snuff them out.  Nya’s younger brother Isaiah (Wade, The Weekend Movie) is out to get Skeletor (Paul, Mapplethorpe), a scarred-up, cracked-out psychopath who scratched him violently, and who is very much looking forward to the night’s bloodbath of festivities.

The First Purge is well shot, especially given that much of the action takes place in some not-very-bright parts of a city at night, sometimes without lighting at all.  Series creator and screenwriter James DeMonaco (The Purge: Election Year, The Purge: Anarchy) hands off the directorial chores to Gerard McMurray (Burning Sands), perhaps for more authenticity of voice for a cast that predominantly consists of African-Americans (any white characters are relegated to the heavies of the film).  McMurray has stated that his approach is to deliver the message that ‘Black Lives Matter’ and work from there.  Although the themes of the film call out America for its thirst for violence, it’s also not a film that takes a very high road, as The First Purge is perhaps the most gratuitous in its depictions of violence as there has been in the series thus far, especially in some of the action that betrays its notions of realism in favor of typical movie-formula choreography.

Mercenaries consisting of a hodge-podge of types that are seemingly culled from heavily armed and mobilized fringe white supremacists, torch-wielding neo-Nazis, brutal law enforcement types, and Russian thugs are a probably not-too-subtle suggestion of the current situation that brought a certain president to power.  In this way, the jet-black satire goes headfirst into the notion that, for all of our high-minded ideals, America is a land full of blood-thirsty people who hate each other based on class, race, sex, religion and adherence to our gun culture.  While many science fiction films set their action in otherworldly environments in order to comment on our own, The First Purge very much resembles this society, sometimes uncannily, which does make our current prospects all the more scary when it taps into something in the contemporary sphere of today’s news.

While The First Purge, and the Purge films in general, are not close to being top-tier action films, often mislabeled as horror films that are not exactly horrific either, they are still quite entertaining, and thoughtful, as pieces of social commentary.  Not that the film doesn’t tap into deep-rooted fears that are common among many Americans, especially people of color.  The marketing of the film took advantage of the Trump Administration’s darker notions by emblazoning the title, The First Purge, in place of “Make America Great Again” on a red baseball cap.  There’s even a scene in which someone makes a Trumpian move of trying to grab her by her womanhood.

It also feeds into the notion that many feel of how government, and in particular well-to-do conservative, religious fundamentalist white men, feel that their own quest for ‘greatness’ is being inhibited by being tethered to have to support people of lower economic classes, and, in particular, ‘overpopulated’ minorities who, they feel, aren’t far removed from being complete savages — something that the current administration has been also labeled as doing in its efforts to set up an ‘us vs. them’ wedge between societal ideology.

The other themes for the series continue on how the government of today tries to assert its positions, not by persuasion or rhetoric, but through violence and pitting people against one another.  While the experiment would seem initially like a far-fetched idea, given some abhorrent things that governments employ in order to be a deterrent or to manipulate a populace, it’s not outside of the realm of possibility that someone, somewhere along the line will actually think the Purge is a good idea to solve a host of societal ills, as they qualify them anyway.  In this way, the contrast in methods between the hoods who control the ‘hood and the elite who control the government, as well as manipulating the narrative on TV and social media, reveals that they are much more similar in their execution of violence as a means to sort out their conflicts and grievances.

Without the relevant commentary, perhaps The First Purge would be an average film at best, but the weight of current headlines certainly makes it feel like a substantive and semi-important movie to ponder beyond just what happens during the course of narrative events. All of this makes The First Purge heady and relevant enough for a piece of entertainment, although many will find the film unnerving, not for anything that happens within the film’s twelve-hour period, but for the acts committed outside in the real world in which those with power can commit all manner of crimes and immoral acts and not suffer any consequences.

Qwipster’s rating: B-

MPAA Rated: Rated R for strong disturbing violence throughout, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use
Running time: 98 min.

Cast: Y’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Mugga, Patch Darragh, Marisa Tomei, Rotimi Paul, Luna Lauren Velez
Small role: Van Jones
Director: Gerard McMurray
Screenplay: James DeMonaco