The First Purge first published by Little White Lies
“Is it the end or the beginning?”
The world has changed. It is not just that James DeMonaco is no longer at the helm of the Purge series (although he is still writing it), but also that when his The Purge (2013), The Purge: Anarchy (2014) and The Purge: Election Year (2016) came out, Barack Obama was in power, so that their dystopian vision of America’s class, race and culture wars being literalised over one night each year into bloody civil strife seemed more a dark allegory of an American near future than a mirror to the there and then. So it is ironic that even as, with Gerard McMurray’s The First Purge, the series now heads back in time into prequel territories, its chronology also catches up with something like the here and now of Trump’s America.
The First Purge is an origin story, as the first president to have come from the New Founding Fathers of America implements a controversial public experiment in the primarily low-income, non-white community of Staten Island, New York. That the NFAA is said to be something different from the traditional Democratic and Republican parties already gets the Trump sirens ringing, as does the privileged WASP-ishness of its representatives, their covert connections to Russia, and their comfort with white supremacist militias and Ku Klux Klansmen. Yet the film is concerned less with the political élites behind this experiment than with the people on the ground and on the receiving end of this duplicitous policy.
That is people like Nya (Lex Scott Davis), the working-class activist who, though unlikely ever to come into direct contact with a distant, Trump-like President, certainly must, on her first Purge night, contend with some “Pussy-grabbing motherfuckers”. Or Nya’s younger brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade), full of potential yet drifting towards criminality and participation in the Purge. Or Nya’s ex-boyfriend Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel), an organised gangster who must decide whether to dig in and protect number one, join the Purging for some internecine payback, or lead a revolutionary fight for his community.
In other words, The First Purge is a film about moral choice, about taking sides and stands – a sort of Do The Right Thing for the Trump era, and a hyperbolic guide to civic resistance. There is even, just like in Spike Lee’s film, a chorus of three older men who sit out on folding chairs, proffering their wisdom and authority – and while The First Purge offers all the dubious Colosseum thrills of the other films in the series, one of those three men, Freddy (Steve Harris), expressly teases out the ethical underpinnings of this arena imagery: “The question is, are we gonna be the Christians or the lions?”
The First Purge is less contained than the original film, and less scuzzy than the two sequels. Although race has always played a part in the franchise, this is the first entry where all the main characters are African-American or Hispanic, and where there is no white knight. It also comes with an urgency born of its time. “So what do we do now?”, Nya asks near the end, posing a question for anyone opposed to the increasingly authoritarian, racist direction in which the United States are currently headed.
Enjoyment: Black female community activist vs the “pussy-grabbing motherfuckers”
In Retrospect: Maybe it’s forgettable, but it could not be more of its time.
© Anton Bitel