Film Review: The First Purge

Dystopian Racial Apocalypse Tomorrow: May the Purge Be With You

Move over George Orwell and Aldous Huxley! Although it depicts a not-so-brave-world and is set in the near future instead of 1984, The First Purge is in the tradition of these dystopian tales about futuristic fascistic states. This is the fourth installment in the popular film franchise about an anti-Utopia America ruled by a quasi-totalitarian government run by a third party backed by the NRA that’s called the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA).

Directed by Gerard McMurray and written by James DeMonaco (who wrote and helmed the previous three Purge pictures), The First Purge is actually a prequel. It explains how the Universal series’ conceit – an annual lawless night of chaos and violence that allows and permits society to get its ya-yas out – began. In First the NFFA’s cathartic yearly “social experiment” is inaugurated at Staten Island, where the no-holds-barred bloody bedlam can be contained by the waters surrounding New York’s outer isle borough. Residents are actually paid blood money by state functionaries to not only stay holed up at home but to roam the streets and participate in murder and mayhem during the 12 hour period when all laws are suspended. At no time is that old cliché “there’s never a cop around when you need one” truer than during the annual Purge.

In reality, the NFFA’s Christian Right fanatical regime is instigating a race war at Staten Island, NYC’s least populated borough, under the guise of the “social experiment” overseen by scientists, including Marisa Tomei as Dr. Updale, who is referred to as “The Architect.” (Consumed by the cause she ends up like a latter day Danton.) Since 2013’s The Purge co-starring Ethan Hawke, racism has been a recurring theme in this series and arguably reaches its apocalyptic apotheosis in First, which has a cast featuring a high percentage of Blacks (probably a majority of the characters).

This is ironic as Blacks form a smaller percentage of Staten Island than any other borough – according to a 2009 survey only about 10 percent of its inhabitants were Black. In any case, the prequel features besieged Blacks (and some Hispanics) battling hooded Klansman in robes, white supremacist bikers and the U.S. military. Remarkable scenes of social commentary include a reference to “taking a knee”: As white soldiers drag a lone Black man across the field of a sports stadium “The Star Spangled Banner” plays. In another chilling scene, a speeding racist motorcyclist drags a Black male along the streets, referring to James Byrd, who was lynched this way in Jasper, Texas. In other scenes U.S. soldiers wear wehrmacht style steel helmets and gestapo-like long black leather jackets as they invade the projects with shoot-to-kill orders.

To make sure the audience “gets” First’s social commentary left-leaning CNN commentator Van Jones appears in a cameo playing himself reporting on the Purge at Staten Island. The female protagonist is a Black Lives Matter type of activist played by Lex Scott Davis (who is also in the new version of Superfly). Her ex-beau Dmitri (Y’lan Noel of HBO’s Insecure series) plays the drug dealer who gets religion during the purge and becomes Rambo-meets-Django Unchained as he spearheads resistance to the racist purgers.

The movie’s unnerving helter-skelter havoc reminds viewers that Staten Island is where Eric Garner was “purged” by NYPD pigs in 2014, snuffed out by illegal chokeholds despite his pleas eleven times “I can’t breathe.” Garner’s “crime” that led to his extrajudicial execution was the heinous offense of allegedly unauthorized selling of cigarettes. Of course, the men in blue who summarily murdered Garner are walking around now as free men. African American helmer Gerard McMurray previously produced 2013’s anti-police shooting Fruitvale Station, about a BART police officer’s shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III in his back. In 2010, Oscar’s assassin was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter but not guilty of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. Considering these crimes against humanity committed by lawmen who either go Scott free or receive light sentences, it’s worth pondering what’s worse: The flick’s fictional “Purge” or the real reign of terror by those wearing badges against unarmed African Americans, as well as Browns, refugees, etc.?

First, like the other Purge pictures, was produced by Michael Bay, a director known for explosions, not subtlety. The chilling series is blunt and has sci fi and horror undertones, especially the ghoulish character Skeletor, demonically played by the hair-raising Rotimi Paul, who studied acting at Manhattan’s William Esper Studio. Like the other ultra-violent entries in the Purge franchise First isn’t particularly well-directed. But its skewed view of a kind of Trump regime-gone-mad on steroids in a topsy-turvy world where Black and Brown people have to fight like hell to survive the racist onslaught makes it worth seeing by those with strong stomachs and social consciences.

Staten Island, which has only about a half million residents (small by NY standards), is sometimes nicknamed “the Forgotten Borough.” But this shocking movie metaphor for race war renders Staten Island unforgettable, a land where the last shall be first.

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