Film

Review: Prequel The First Purge Manages Timely, Murderous Social Commentary

In a move from a franchise that I’ve always appreciated but thought was running out of steam, creator James DeMonaco’s Purge series takes a completely unexpected and even more primal and political turn with the latest installment. The First Purge is a telling of the initial experiment that led to the annual event during which all laws are set aside and the nation is allowed to vent its bottled-up rage against itself with no consequences for 12 hours.

First Purge

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

This time around, DeMonaco has stepped aside as director (he’s still the sole writer as well as a producer), allowing Gerard McMurray (director of Burning Sands and and associate producer on Fruitvale Station) to helm, and that probably makes sense considering how racially charged this prequel gets at times from a political standpoint.

The Purge movies have always acknowledged and been a commentary on where the United States is today by taking a look at where it might be headed in the not too distant future. This particular story is set as close to the present as any of the other movies; The First Purge is meant to reflect today—there’s no getting around that. In the film, respect for the underclass and minorities is on a dangerous slope backwards, and this is typified by the new ruling political party—the New Founding Fathers of America, who have the complete support (financial and otherwise) of the National Rifle Association.

The current president has signed off on an experiment meant to release stress as a nation, but first it must be tested, so his Chief of Staff (Patch Arragh from “The Path”), selects Staten Island as the location to run the Purge as an experiment. The architect of the Purge is Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), who is genuinely curious to see if her theories about human behavior are sound. If this experiment doesn’t work, she’s willing to call the whole thing off; not surprisingly, representatives of the NFFA are not as eager to do so because they believe this is a perfect way to thin the herd of “undesirables.”

People who don’t want to be on the island when the experiment takes place can leave, but the government has promised everyone who stays (and survives) financial compensation—additional funds can be had if people actually go out and participate in the Purge, rather than just say locked up in their homes. The story is told through the eyes and experiences of several residents of a housing project, including Nya (Lex Scott Davis from SuperFly) and her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade), as well as their outspoken neighbor Dolores (Mugga from “Orange Is the New Black”), all of whom are part of a huge protest group that opposes incentivizing murder or conducting such an experiment in a lower-income location, to no avail.

In many ways, The First Purge is not only about finding out how the Purge got started, why people decided to start wearing masks or how the government stoked the fires when residents didn’t seem that interested in fighting each other for no good reason. It’s also about the beginnings of a revolution against a racist, elitist power structure that removes value from human life once a year in the hopes that criminals will kill criminals, thus cutting down on crime for the rest of the year.

One of the heroes of this film is actually a powerful drug dealer named Dmitri (Y’lan Noel from “Insecure”), who used to be involved with Nya but finds himself in the unlikely position of defending his turf against outsiders looking to kill everyone he knows and cares about. The film actually ends as if it’s the beginning of a new series about this group of freedom fighters (I can’t imagine that the commercial during the credits of this movie for a new “Purge” limited-run television series on USA, coming this September, is a coincidence). And unlike the other Purge films, this group isn’t just trying to survive; they are trying to come out of this 12 hours victorious.

Even the eventual presence of hooded klansmen and other white-supremacist types, meant to kick-start a heated reaction from the primarily non-white residents, is part of the government’s plan to make certain the Purge doesn’t fail as an experiment. Overall, this film stands apart and comes across as more biting social commentary and a more brutal action movie in a series that has never been shy about hiding its source material (real life) or pulling any punches.

The First Purge has some nice, slightly terrifying touches beginning with a hyper-violent drug addict character named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), who is just pure rage on two legs, stabbing and slashing randomly right from the beginning of the Purge when no one else will. A particularly cool and creepy visual is that some of the participants wear contact lenses that record everything they do (so they can collect their bonus for killing at the end of the 12 hours), but it makes their eyes glow blue. In a dark room, its especially scary.

Since we have a fairly good sense of where this story is going to end up, the drama comes from figuring out how the powers that be take a community that would rather throw a block party during the Purge and make them into murderous monsters…or do they?

It’s not that The First Purge is better or worse than the other chapters, but it is surprisingly relevant, timely and revolutionary in its message—a very different, even empowering version of this story (at least based on the reaction of the audience at my early screening). This prequel doesn’t hold back, and it makes me curious where the TV series and perhaps even further film installments take things from here.

The film opens, appropriately enough, on Wednesday, July 4.

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