‘The First Purge’ is satisfying and cathartic, just as Black horror should be
What other summer blockbuster is going to give you a sexy-ass Black man strangling to death a neo-Nazi in a Blackface mask?
by Andrew Keahey
This essay contains some spoilers for The First Purge.
Catharsis is important. As marginalized people, every day that we’re alive and drawing breath in this country, we are bombarded with things that infuriate and sadden us. The news not only traumatizes us by showing us the seemingly incessant violence perpetrated against us, but it also proceeds to pour shaker upon shaker of salt into the fresh wounds by giving the perpetrators equal time and what they consider to be “fair and balanced” coverage.
We saw the angry white men marching in their khakis and white polo shirts holding tiki torches in Charlottesville, and we were told that they were “very fine people” by the president. We’re told that any given white police officer is justified whenever he fires his gun on the unarmed Black person. We’re told that children won’t be reunited with their families because they are criminals.
Eventually it all becomes too much. We log onto our social media accounts, and we let everyone know that we need to take some time off. We don’t do it to be dramatic. We do it because we can only absorb so much trauma before it starts to have an effect on our health.
We have moments in which we can feel triumphant and strong, but it is usually short-lived. For every article about Ginai Seabron becoming the first Black Woman to graduate from Virginia Tech with a degree in Nanoscience, there are ten more articles about white people using the police as a personal tool of segregation. We get tired. We want justice, and it feel like we never get it.
For catharsis, we have films like The First Purge, the latest installment in the dystopian horror mega-franchise. For one night of the year, all crime, including murder, is declared legal by a corrupt US government — a more corrupt one, I mean.
With the original film released in 2013, The Purge has been essential viewing for anyone feeling a stylized hyper-violence shaped void left by the culmination of the Saw series. While being just as creative in how they dispatch characters, The Purge has also managed to include damning commentary on classism, racism, and corruption in the USA. I went into The First Purge knowing all of this and thinking that I knew what to expect. I was very wrong.
While it has the same writer as the first three films, The First Purge is the first of the series to be helmed by a Black director, Gerard McMurray. The result is a stark, damning assault on everything currently happening in this country.
The first three films all focus on white protagonists who make a series of questionable life decisions (on the one night that they really should avoid doing so), and who often get themselves into near-fatal trouble before a person or people of color swoop in to save the day.
These characters of color always have a better handled on what The Purge means for them, their communities, and the world at large. The First Purge finally allows an ensemble cast of Black people to lead the narrative, and these characters don’t need the assistance of white men to get things done and protect their own.
As a prequel, it focuses on the rise of a new political party, The New Founding Fathers of America, who come into power after receiving the support of the NRA and by convincing the country that the America they once knew is dead. Therefore, the American people are encouraged to come together to make a new one.
One major part of this proposed reinvention is a social and psychological experiment which allows people to release their rage on a single night, purging all those nasty emotions from their body. The scope of this experiment is limited to Staten Island, New York.
The story is focuses on Nya, a community organizer and activist hell-bent on opposing The Purge, immediately recognizing it as a trap for lower-income communities of color. Her younger brother, Isaiah, is a young man with promise who is drifting towards a criminal lifestyle with intentions to make a better life for his sister. Dmitri or “D”, is the “Big Dog” of the island who runs a major drug ring and a gang.
There is opportunity for those who are able to leave the island, but Nya decides to stay to help get people off the street and into safe places. D stays because he still has a business to run, and doesn’t want to take the chance that someone will move in on his territory. Isaiah has been guaranteed $5,000 from the government if he stays, with bonuses should he decide to participate.
What follows this set-up is a nearly two-hour intensely angry letter to the state of our broken nation, to a degree that actually shocked me as a filmgoer. I wasn’t shocked by the trademark creative violence–which has been rightfully dialed down–but by the aggressiveness with which the movie seeks to convey its message.
The world around us is being torn apart, but we have to fight, and we have to stay strong. If we do, we can make it through the night.
There is so much imagery in this movie that speaks to me on a visceral level. I’d love to take you by the hand and walk you through every piece of it, scene by scene, but that would deny you the experience of seeing it for yourself (which I would very much recommend you do while it’s still in theaters).
This prequel trades in cheap and repetitive jump-scares for ever increasing tension. The main players don’t know where the violence will come from, or when it will rear its head, and that’s something that Black Americans know all too well.
This film takes those people that you see on the news–the white monsters with their khakis, white polos, and tiki torches–and it reveals them for what they truly are, and what exactly they want to do. They’re not “very fine people.” They’re violent, they’re hateful, and they come into Black and non-Black POC spaces just to take away that safety and that sense of protection that a community can provide.
The First Purge takes on many issues from our past, as well as our present day struggles–white supremacists working with the government to intimidate and inflict violence upon minority groups, scientific “progress” through unethical testing on the poor and downtrodden, the government and the media fabricating information in order to make it seem like certain groups are inherently violent, and then sending in police and other white supremacist organizations to inflict the violence on their behalf. It’s nothing we’re not used to seeing.
But what it does more than anything is tell us not to lose hope. The words “Stay Strong” permeate the entirety of the film, from characters saying it to one another, to the words themselves hanging on walls. It tells us that even though this world looks bleak, we can damn sure hurt those who have hurt us. It also rightfully raises up Black women as the catalysts for revolution and change, something that is finally being portrayed in our media, but has always been true. It tells you that, no matter what, you should fight for your home and your community.
All things considered, The First Purge is a horror film, and it delivers the terror. The KKK, the Nazis, and the pasty white assholes with the tiki torches are all represented with all their inherent menace in this story. They are the threat, and they are the horror on the screen and off. Remember, though, Black horror is all about catharsis. It’s about taking the things that make us afraid, and tearing through them piece by piece. This is where The First Purge succeeds with flying colors. What other summer blockbuster is going to give you a sexy-ass Black man strangling to death a neo-Nazi in a Blackface mask?
If you have an issue seeing Nazis and klansmen being absolutely eviscerated, go see Ant-Man and The Wasp. Otherwise, pop on down to your local cinema, and settle in for a bloody ride that will unsettle and frighten you, but will also leave you feeling a little relieved. A little less stressed, and a little lighter, which is the point of The Purge anyway, isn’t it? Most importantly, it’ll leave you with two wise words that we desperately need to hear now and then, especially in times like these.
Andrew Keahey is a horror enthusiast and writer currently based in Austin, Texas. He’s been watching horror movies since he was far too young, and primarily writes essays, short fiction, and poetry