There is an ongoing belief that pop culture is better when it isn’t being ‘political’. Which is a little like saying what the alphabet really needs is less vowels. It’s an epic, biblicly idiotic way of thinking and this week I spent a couple of fun hours watching a movie dedicated to repudiating it.
The First Purge is a prequel to The Purge series, which, along with Paranormal Activity and Get Out built the Blumhouse that creepy small children and nuns haunt. I’ve written about them before and The Purge series demonstrates their model to a tee. One or two locations, small cast, maximum invention. The idea is simple; a newly founded, and in power, political party heal America by making all crime legal for a night. Of course ‘heal’ in this instance means ‘tear every grudge open and pour salt into it’ and the series does an excellent job of showing how Murder Christmas is in fact a horrifically bad idea.
The First Purge goes a step further and has someone, on camera, say it’s about population control. And, much like Bushwick, it starts in a diverse, working class neighborhood. The first Purge is an ‘experiment’ conducted on Staten Island and devised by a white scientist played by Marisa Tomei. Her plan, like all of them, doesn’t survive contact with the enemy. Because the enemy aren’t playing. Staten Island doesn’t want to Purge. It wants to be paid to sit through it but by and large the murderous war zone the government wants doesn’t happen. Instead, for a while, the smaller wars of the island are magnified. Dmitri, played with Chadwick Bosemanian presence by Y’Lan Noel, is a local gangster who fights off an attempt on his crown. Isaiah, played with wide eyed terror by Joivan Wade, chooses the night to track down the junkie psychopath who cut him. Miniature disasters, minor catastrophes. Government sponsored kill teams.
The experiment is rigged. Because of course it is. And so community organizer Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and friends Luisa and Selina (Lauren Velez and Kristen Solis) along with neighbor Dolores (Mugga) find themselves trapped in their building as the government forces are sent in to make up the numbers a little.
Gerard McMurray’s direction and James DeMonaco’s script make the sub-text pretty much text here and the movie is all the better for it. A barely disguised Kekistani flag flies over the white polo-shirted mercenaries. A senior officer is in Gestapo cosplay. Soldiers wear black and white minstrel masks. This is about race and class, because it was always about race and class but this year the series sits in rarefied ground. The political climate is overtly toxic enough for them to pass comment on this, but not so overly toxic that it appears exploitational. Instead, The First Purge works as a piece of political science fiction, as an action thriller, a soft reboot for the series and as a perfect companion piece to Bushwick. Neither are happy, neither offer easy answers. Both deserve your time.
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