The First Purge
A dystopian near-future with America under the control of white supremacists, The First Purge is the prequel to a crossover trilogy of horror and social commentary of disturbing prescience. Given political developments in the US since 2016 in particular, I'd place this film up there with Get Out! (2017) as the kind of twisted fantasy that shines a light where few films go on race relations in the US.
To be sure, and in contrast to the two I have watched so far – the Ethan-Hawke driven Purge (2013) and the more political Purge: Anarchy (2014) – this latest offering is the most explicitly topical and grounded in the oppression of African-American people. Located in New York's Staten Island, we're presented with a community trying to make the best of a bad situation, in a place of few economic prospects. An ambiguous gangster, Dmitri (played by Y'lan Noel), is the figure of power, thriving in an alternative economy by dealing in drugs. A one-time girlfriend, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), is his feisty mirror opposite, her commitment to her community rooted in the local church. At one point she rails against Dmitri for involving her brother as a dealer, stating that the purge is only for one day a year, while his drug dealing kills the community every other day of the year. Yet their orbits are driven closer by the purge as it kicks in, as both struggle to protect their community under siege.
The purge itself is where things become simultaneously fantastical and, yes, absurd. The premise, of a government permitting any kind of crime over a 12-hour period, is a hard one to digest, given the potential damage it would cause, not to mention the expectation that such chaos could be unleashed and then confined by the sound of a claxon horn.
More believable is the motive behind its creation: of a government and its voters refusing to countenance higher taxes and wealth-redistribution to support those of socio-economic disadvantage, and instead dreaming up plans to further marginalize their poor. To this end, the government in the movie, the NRA-funded 'New Founding Fathers,' have cooked up a Plan B for when the African-American community fail to descend into bloodshed: the government unleashes para-military mercenaries and white supremacists gangs, armed, masked and supported by drones, to hunt down and kill African-Americans. The news channels accordingly report it as violence committed by African Americans.
The fantasy scenario blurs back into reality. Reminding me of how CNN distorted the reporting of the Baton Rouge protestor of Black Lives Matter, by giving priority to the deaths of police officers and nothing about the daily, systematic targeting of African-Americans by other police officers, or indeed, the high numbers of African American men killed by police officers. This CNN story mentions the killing of 2 African Americans, choosing to say nothing about the murder of Trayvon Martin and the larger pattern of legally justified violence against people of colour in the US. The CNN story instead latches onto the Black counter-violence, and makes that the story. The mainstream news, in short, presenting de-contextualized facts, omitting other facts, and presenting in a context that diminishes public awareness of the original oppression(s).The First Purge, I appreciated for putting up on the big screen in the guise of the 'low' entertainment a message that needs to be heard. It presents a sometimes awkward fantasy scenario of how a white supremacist government in America attempts to deal with the Black Question. From slavery to Jim Crow and then the implicit racial systems set up by Nixon, Reagan and Clinton of mass incarceration and the 'War on Drugs,' the US has never confronted its systematic desire to marginalize its Black communities but instead embraces it, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously like in a kind of sleep walk. For providing an exposure of these hidden attitudes, in an admittedly low-brow style, I'm glad they made this movie, if only as a springboard to talk about these issues.