Credit to those responsible for the Purge series for recognizing its potential for redemption. What began as yet another movie with a promising premise but disappointing execution has become the ultimate vessel for social and political commentary in our age of stratification.
The First Purge is, fittingly, the first one in the series to be truly cathartic for those feeling anxiety over the rise of the far right. It may not for everyone—you do have to already be on board with the overall Purge premise, even if you haven’t seen all of the movies. But after almost losing its way a few times, there are some genuinely bold decisions, not to mention the best characters and the sharpest politics of any Purge movie. Whether we knew it or not, we’ve needed a black hero who takes out Klansmen, Nazis and racist militias, and The First Purge is just what the social justice doctor ordered.
The First Purge takes us back to the early days of the New Founding Fathers of America regime, a right-wing populist movement that promises swift answers to the country’s problems. It seizes an idea conceived of by a researcher (Marisa Tomei) to legalize crime for 12 hours as a means of societal and psychological release. The Experiment—as it is then known—begins on Staten Island, chosen for that racial dog whistle code word, its “demographics.”
Some community members are protesting, others are simply observing out of curiosity, while still others are being actively paid to participate. Our main characters are Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel), a drug dealer, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), an activist, and Isaiah (Joivan Wade), Nya’s younger brother. As the night goes on, we switch between their perspectives and that of the architect (Tomei), who is observing remotely with a representative of the NFFA.
Director Gerard McMurray does an excellent job balancing the competing storylines, showing how the rising tension and raised stakes affect people across the island. Everyone is dealing with this anomaly in different ways, but there is a sense that the entire community is in it together. The characters are without a doubt the best of the entire series, particularly that of Dmitri. As a drug kingpin, Nya accuses him of harming his community every non-Purge day. But the film shows him as a product of his environment and an adept strategist, always thinking five steps ahead. His place in the world is the result of cracks in our society’s foundation rather than any love of drugs or violence, and along comes the NFFA to blow up those cracks and everyone in them. When outside forces threaten the community in the form of racist mercenaries, he chooses the community in a heartbeat.
There are two parts that threaten to derail the story before it really gets going: the storyline of the architect and the psychopath Skeletor (Rotimi Paul). The former is an exploration of the dangers of subverting actual science to organizations with vested income in particular outcomes. This is a legitimate topic and the filmmakers treat it with the seriousness it deserves. Think of the scientists involved in the creation of nuclear weapons, or even the anthropologists of Avatar: Just because someone is funding your research, that does not make them a supporter. That said, it is a little difficult to buy the notion that 12 hours of legalized murder in a predominately black borough was the brainchild of a dispassionate, politically neutral academic, so it all rings slightly false when she makes accusations that her research is being misappropriated.
Skeletor, meanwhile, is more of a red herring than a flaw. To McMurray’s credit, he is used effectively in the end, but the worry that his plotline may take over the whole movie could prove distracting for most viewers. Skeletor is an addict and general nuisance to the neighborhood, and the first person we see on screen. He is one of the people paid by the NFFA to participate in the Experiment, and in his introduction expresses a desire to “purge.” A few times, when there are more interesting stories happening elsewhere, the entire movie focuses on him and his over-the-top behavior, but viewers can trust that the good parts of the movie will prevail spectacularly.
The First Purge is the most unapologetic piece of insurrectionary cinema to carry a major studio’s logo since Mad Max: Fury Road. And while it may not be the same sort of artistic revelation, if you’re looking for motivation to fight back, it is well worth your time.
By Kristofer Jenson for c-ville