This post contains spoilers for The First Purge.
The First Purge — which is actually the fourth film in The Purge franchise, and a prequel — was bad. I feel horrible for saying this because the fourth installment of this action/thriller/horror (depends on who you ask) dystopian series — conveniently out on July 4; god bless America! — gives us what many loyal viewers have been asking for since 2013. The premise of all Purge films is that a new political regime called the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) has mandated an annual purge. On one night each year, all crime, including murder (they really drive that point home) is legal. Supporters of the annual purge think that allowing citizens a night to let go of their anger and aggression without the fear of consequence leads to a healthier, more productive society overall. Some fans love the franchise, and some people hate it.
The first film, released in 2013, focused on a single white family in an affluent neighborhood in Los Angeles being terrorized by a group of purgers, including their neighbors, despite having high tech security systems in place to protect themselves and their homes. The Purge: Anarchy (2014) took viewers out into city to get a better gauge of the widespread sadism sweeping the nation. It was certainly better than the original, and hinted at the systemic inequalities that made the purge more dangerous for poor Black and brown people who couldn’t afford to seek safety. In fact, upper-class purgers pay top dollar to be able to purge in a safe, controlled hunting ground. Their “prey” are often innocent people picked off of the street. The Purge: Election Year (2016) delved into the political tension existing between pro- and anti-purge groups. An anti-purge senatorial candidate is targeted by the corrupt NFFA for assassination. She is protected by a white man and the people of color most likely to be helped if she wins her campaign.
What seems to be unanimous among people who both love and hate this franchise is that the premise itself is fascinating. Kristin Lansdown, a librarian, loves it. “I think it’s solid science fiction/horror (of the dystopian variety) that does a good job of highlighting how issues of race and class can become even more amplified, and the extremes folks will go,” she raved. “It’s not too heavy handed on those themes.”
Chas from Brooklyn disagrees. She doesn’t think the studios have been able to execute the films properly, noting that they often come off as “cheesy.” Pastiche, an artist from Atlanta has a similar take. “The concept could be handled better. It has potential to be smart, but the one I saw (Anarchy) fell far short and was just lazy schlock.”
That’s where I fall: Excited by trailers for each new film, giddy to witness the carnage because I am a horror fan, but always slightly disappointed by the execution. I hate that the story almost always centers on a white savior and portrays people of color as secondary (and often helpless) characters. I think all of the films have struggled to balance the thrills and chills with the social commentary it relies on to impact viewers.
Unfortunately, The First Purge was my biggest let down, yet. This prequel is the first film in the series to put Black people at the center of the story.
Staten Island has been chosen as the testing site for the purge experiment that would eventually set the precedent for the national event in the years to come. The NFFA offers residents $5,000 to stay on the island with the promise of more money if they participate. This draws out huge numbers of poor, marginalized community members. But when little to no crime happens, the NFFA take matters into their own hands by sending out hired killers. A local organizer, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), and a local drug lord, Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), ex-lovers who have grown apart because of the latter’s lifestyle, work in different ways to keep their community safe.
It was overcooked to say the least. The film panders to the current Black Lives Matter era: Police preparing to harm a Black man? Check. Staged protests against the “experiment” led by a radical woman of color? Check. Bloodthirsty white men with guns and Klan gear? Check. Even smaller details like the soundtrack — bass-laden hip-hop songs that I’d never heard before and wouldn’t choose to listen to popped up whenever a gang member and a car appeared — and Dmitri’s clothes — he looked like a cross between Wesley Snipes in New Jack City and Wesley Snipes in Blade — irked me. It also lacked the deathly creativity that saved previous Purge films. Most of the violence happens by gunfire and bombs this time around. By the end of the movie, the cheap jump scares only annoyed me. It also didn’t help that none of the performances (except Y'lan Noel’s, who plays Daniel on Insecure) were worth writing home about.
The Purge franchise is promising. That is still true. It's why people like me religiously hate-watch it. But it’s far past time to get some fresh eyes behind the cameras, some new hands on the script (Jordan Peele, is that you?), and some better talent in front of the camera. It’s better to be a movie that we hate to love than one we love to hate.