Film discussion

The First Purge: These movies have always been political

Upon the release of the first official trailer for The First Purge, a quick trip to the YouTube comments section will have revealed a new recurrent refrain to join the dual Greek choruses of “lol this idea is dumb what a dumb fukin movie” and “if I were in The Purge, I’d just be stealing PSN cards all night long!”  That of claims, starting with Election Year and growing louder here, this series has now become “too political.”  “The Purge is just another good movie franchise ran into the ground by leftist propaganda,” reads one comment.  “The DNC us projecting their wet dreams again,” replied with “it looks like this film is trying to push a leftist agenda, that is very PC pro black, and anti white,” and other such hits you can discover by yourself by even taking a cursory glance at said hellscape.

In fairness, it’s not all a grand conspiracy.  The Purge franchise has been getting far ballsier and far more blatant about its political subtext as time has gone on.  Election Year’s marketing prominently ran with the tagline “Keep America Great,” its ethnically-diverse heroes were headed up by the amalgamation of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders whilst its villains were a suite of Old White Men mashing together Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and The First Purge’s opening shot of promotional material involved the name of the film stitched into a modified MAGA hat.  The movie itself, meanwhile, is promising to triple down on the messaging of Election Year, demonstrating that The Purge is just state-sanctioned ethnic and social-cleansing with its effectiveness being artificially inflated by targeted government death squads to keep the people in line – angry entitled youths get their rage on, the government uses that cover to silence dissent (primarily coming from oppressed minorities), and then everybody else succumbs to the propaganda and its accompanying fear in order to heighten their chances of not-dying in a totalitarian state.

So, yeah, the Purge series has been increasing its political messaging over time, and that can lead to a subsection of folks… disagreeing with that direction.  It may even lead to them pining for the halcyon days of the original Purge when the concept of one night in America where all crime is legalised was being wasted on an especially non-scary and bog-standard home invasion horror movie.  Can’t we all just stop trying to force political agendas down viewers’ throats and get back to the roots of this whole thing?  When the series was just a crappy knock-off of The Strangers?  I remember when The Purge was just about the killing and the creepy-ass masks, man!  Before it sold out for those damn liberal agenda dollars!

The Purge, 2013

That’s all well and good, but such belief, of The Purge now suddenly having become “political” – one that, rather than just being the mewlings of anonymous Internet denizens, was also shared by professional movie critics around the time of Election Year’s release – demonstrates a super-selective memory in order to make this series fit that pre-ordained narrative.  For The Purge, as a series, has always been political.

I mean, of course it fucking has.  Have we all already forgotten that one actually good scene in the original movie where the clean-cut, suit-wearing leader of our preppy psychopath kill group monologues to the camera with a Cheshire-sized grin about how he and his group are “entitled” to purging because they are “some fine, young, very-educated guys and gals?”  How he explicitly points out that his group and the Sandins’, our protagonists, are effectively the same, the “haves” profiting off of the misery of the “pigs” that the group got “gussied up” to slaughter?  How he repeatedly refers to the Black homeless military veteran they chased into the Sandins’ home as “filthy,” “grotesque,” someone who needs to “be taught a lesson” by the all-White upper-class trust-fund group, and whose fighting back against their menacing is considered “an audacity?”

The Purge’s micro premise – the macro premise of the night itself merely being the backdrop – is even political: will this affluent, selfish, all-White upper-class family that makes a substantial profit as a, they would argue, indirect result of the fear and miseries of those not in their privileged bubble side with the versions of themselves who are physically predatory, or with the oppressed homeless Black man whose suffering they willingly exacerbate?  Issues of class, race, economic and social entitlement are wallpapered all over the background of the first Purge… but other than a few key scenes, the film doesn’t do anything with them, much like how it doesn’t particularly do anything with The Purge as a concept.  If you’re actively looking for this stuff, it is there, and the original does reveal slightly more political insight in retrospect after future instalments started filling in the blanks around it, but largely the film fails to engage with this politicism on any meaningful level, hence the not-unfair assessment that it’s just another home invasion movie with a needlessly convoluted excuse as to why no-one can call the cops.

The Purge: Anarchy, 2014

With Anarchy, the series began to foreground that political subtext, actively engaging with it via the film’s episodic vignette-based structure, marrying the themes to at-times loaded imagery.  A woman with a redneck accent standing atop a building, waving an assault rifle wildly in the air whilst screaming into a megaphone about how she is “the left hand of God” and that purging is her “God-given constitutional right.”  The patriarch of a Black low-class inner-city Los Angeles family selling himself to a White wealthy upper-class suburban family for purging in order to provide his daughter and granddaughter with financial stability.  The reveal that the New Founding Fathers have been sending vans full of government-backed death squads to kidnap and cull lower-class citizens because 90% of The Purge’s casualties are people acting on grudges they have, rather than going about hunting “the right people,” as it were.

Anarchy resultantly starts properly grappling with the racial and class-based connotations baked into the premise, also stopping off for brief detours into gun control debates and fascistic governmental policies.  Election Year would expand upon that even further – and I’ve written about it in the past, so won’t repeat myself too much here – via a more focussed narrative directly about the ineffectualness of The Purge, the targeted nature of its goals, its status as American Capitalism super-charged without the veneer of consequences, and the need for its immediate repeal by damn-near any means necessary.  It’s a film in which self-described “murder-tourists” decked out in George Washington masks make a holiday trip to the United States specifically so they can indulge in this “great American holiday,” and where a government-funded Neo-Nazi death squad is ruthlessly gunned down by a gang of Crips.

Again, it is inarguable that The Purge has gotten more expressly and explicitly ‘political’ as time has gone on.  Part of that is because series writer James DeMonaco has clearly grown more confident in himself, his premise, and his attempts at political satire.  He’s still not subtle when he wants to make a point, in keeping with the lineage of political b-cinema, but whereas the first Purge would just stop dead for a monologue when it wanted to pay lip service to its political themes and otherwise ignore them, later entries would weave this commentary into the imagery and the narrative of the films, developing them throughout their runtimes, and displaying surprising moments of nuance – like the runner in Election Year involving Candy Girl that tackles internalised racism in affluent Blacks manifesting in a disdain for those beneath them economically.  DeMonaco has gotten sharper and braver over the course of this series, which has allowed him to begin doing justice to the themes he underserved in the original Purge.

The Purge: Election Year, 2016

But this increasing “politicisation” has also arrived with one other gradual yet notable change, something that The First Purge is seemingly completing, and which has reframed the alignment of the politics behind the series’ premise.  In the original Purge, outside of the stranger that the Sandins let in to their house, nobody else in the film is non-White.  The stranger is the only non-White person in the entire film and, not only is he basically a MacGuffin whose existence starts and drives the plot for the Sandins, he doesn’t even get a name.  He’s just “Bloody Stranger” whom is the catalyst for the Sandins to get over their White privilege, in turn saving them from death by neighbour at the film’s conclusion.  James Sandin even gets an extended sequence where he goes full-Liam Neeson on a bunch of Purgers, in a sequence that made me burst out laughing upon first viewing because it felt so random.

Except that, upon further reflection, it wasn’t random.  After all, really think about the basic outline of that premise stripped of all subtext, satire and nuance: for one night a year, all crime is legal.  As an idea, as a premise, who do you think that most appeals to?  That idea of cathartic violence which not only goes unpunished but is actively encouraged?  Endorsed?  The whole concept of The Purge, before you start digging into the social and racial and economic subtexts inherent within it, is the purest form of a White male power fantasy.  An event that lets someone commit whatever crime without consequence, making manifest all of their deepest unrestrained desires, is tailor-made for exactly the kind of guy who thinks they’d be awesome in a real Purge.

The Purge, not just the first film but the series as a whole up until now (and this is the band-aid that First Purge looks set to decisively rip off at long last), has always offered that segment of the audience a way out when justifying that sort of reaction.  For those who think they’d be great in a Purge, they can picture themselves as James Sandin, standing their ground and protecting their family against an evil outside force coming to take what’s theirs.  Or they can see themselves as Leo Barnes, reluctantly Punisher-ing their way through the lawless Los Angeles streets in an effort to keep more ineffectual civvies safe.  Or, if they’re being honest, they can be the street-salesman near the beginning of Election Year hawking custom masks and gleefully espousing about “Halloween for adults!”  Because, when you act out this premise with prominent White men in your cast of characters, that is what you make: a right-wing male power fantasy.

The First Purge, 2018

What the series has been doing over time, then, is expanding the racial make-up of its cast.  By the time we got to Election Year, almost every good character not named Leo or Roan was non-White, whilst the vast majority of its villainous cast remained White and frequently male.  As a result, and what earns the series its Horror tag far more than any shitty jump scare, the premise has been reframed to force the viewer to confront the racial and classist implications head-on.  By making us better empathise with the victims of The Purge the original film merely used as a MacGuffin, the concept begins shedding that escapist factor for the kind of audience member that moans about the series becoming “more political,” because the racial and classist implications become impossible to ignore.  The films have started (deservedly) condemning the kinds of people who would take them as little more than mindless fun.  It’s no coincidence that Rick & Morty based an entire episode around this premise, since both works similarly take White male power fantasies and gradually undermine them by forcing their would-be unironic fans to reckon with their consequences.

The point, then, is this: The Purge has always been political.  And whilst it has been growing increasingly more explicitly political as the films have rolled on, it’s telling that the ones moaning about the fact never seemed to have a problem when the series (perhaps inadvertently) was indulging their political fantasies.

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