‘The First Purge’ will finally center people of color in its violent, dystopian narrative
A new era of horror may be dawning before our very eyes.
by Andrew Keahey
The Purge series is an interesting phenomenon; a horror franchise with heavy commentary on American class politics, privilege, and security. Sure, it absolutely helps to fulfill the public’s desire for stylized hyper-violence, a craving once consistently nurtured by the Saw franchise, but it also endeavors to do much more with the stories it tells.
Acknowledging the fact that the US is basically run by people who believe in a religion based almost entirely on murder and money is not novel. The Purge films simply take these truths and magnify them to a degree so bizarre that the audience is able to disassociate from its madness and find enjoyment in its fantasy.
People get dressed up, go out into the streets and commit legal murder one night a year, and rich white people are both responsible and almost entirely shielded from the dangers of the night of the deadly annual event. Happy Purging!
The interesting world these films have developed over the course of three installments is often pushed into the peripheral in order to make way for creative ways of killing people, as well as poor writing choices and horror clichés.
While people of color are more heavily featured in the two most recent films, their plans and opinions are often ignored by the lead white characters. So, as the movies become increasingly more relatable (and better in overall quality), the characters of color who are the most affected by and susceptible to the violence of The Purge are ultimately silenced by the white characters in more dominant roles when they try to formulate plans to save their own lives.
The Purge: Election Year is the most recent installment. It follows a white senator and her bodyguard as they attempt to survive a city ripped apart by the bloody holiday and eventually find safety among a group of Black and brown people who have set up a rudimentary triage center. There, the senator learns of their plan to assassinate the New Founding Fathers, the political group responsible for creating and maintaining The Purge.
She immediately insists that their plan is ineffective and asserts that her way is the most right and that they should follow her instead. She and her bodyguard are ultimately able to derail these people’s meticulous plan through straight-up intimidation. While things seems to work out in the end, that is not at all the point.
The Purge series has thus far been helmed entirely by white creatives, and it shows in its handling of characters of color, who have been saddled with awkward, forced, and cringey dialogue like, “My negro!” or “I can’t let you kill these white folk!”
The representation of people of color has improved since the first movie, though. This debut featured a Black man who didn’t speak for almost the entirety of the film. He was merely a plot device used to illustrate the underlying theme of class and racial warfare.
In the end, he saves the white family whose property he has been hiding on, and it just doesn’t sit right with me. They had actively tried to kill him, and even though he has the opportunity to leave, he sticks around to be a good Samaritan.
The First Purge is set for release on July 4th of this year as the fourth, and possibly final, installment of the series—no doubt a comment on “American freedom.”
Though it’s written by the same white man who penned the first three film, its director is Gerard McMurray, the Black visionary whose film about hazing in Black fraternities, Burning Sands, premiered on Netflix last year.
He was a producer on the amazing Fruitvale Station, the first Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler vehicle which led to the two collaborating on Creed and Black Panther.
McMurray’s work, though limited, is powerful, and it’s already apparent that when he wants to convey a message, he does so with strength and clarity.
Hopefully, with a Black director like McMurray behind the camera, we can finally have a Purge film that not only speaks to the fact that state-sanctioned violence disproportionately affects poor people of color, but that also allows its characters of color to be highlighted and carry more agency than the previous films.
The film, as evidenced by the name, is a prequel. A renowned psychologist (Marisa Tomei) proposes the idea of societal catharsis for one night. The government agrees and the scope of the first experiment is limited to Staten Island.
Following this decision, the residents of color mobilize, fighting back against the idea of the purge before it even begins. When the fateful, law-free night finally comes, the government finds itself disappointed at the low rate of participation, and decides to step in and with a little violence of their own.
If done correctly, this could be a horror film with plenty of important things to say, and could carry an already decent franchise above and beyond. There has been a wave of thoughtful horror films rushing into the market lately, and not only have many of them been incredibly successful at the box office, but they have also convinced many reviewers, critics, and moviegoers to finally take the horror genre more seriously.
With Jordan Peele’s Get Out winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, it seems that a new era of horror may be dawning before our very eyes and that people are finally seeing the value that many horror films have always had to offer. It is my hope that The First Purge will look towards the light, rather than turning away from it, and continue to help take people of color in horror to new heights.
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