By Christopher Sharrett.
One would think that the fascination with apocalypse in cinema peaked, perhaps, in the late 70s-early 80s, with the disaster films of the era, or the Mad Max cycle, and Blade Runner and its knock-offs. Alternately, Robin Wood remarked that genre cinema reached its “apocalypse phase” in the late 60s with Rosemary’s Baby, The Wild Bunch, and Night of the Living Dead, but the fascination with apocalypse, in the US certainly, is eternal, and seems now to be reaching its apogee (or nadir) as legitimacy within the power system seems ready to implode with the Trump moment, and as the threats of species extinction through nuclear arms or climate change seem imminent. As usual, the apocalypse (a word used too often and always incorrectly) is celebrated, the populace apparently wanting to revel in its own demise rather than analyze, or, God forbid, engage in real political and social change that might permit the planet to exist. The popularity of the execrable soap opera The Walking Dead, where vicious sadism (the character Negan) is the subject of action figures and other spin-offs, and the destruction of humanity accepted along with “ruin porn” and other fixations as something to groove on, is representative.
The Purge franchise would be almost unthinkable even twenty years ago (when US film culture was firmly destined for the rubbish bin, with political culture), but today seems a logical outgrowth of what has occurred around us. The franchise is hugely popular, with a line of Halloween masks, and, no doubt, other paraphernalia on the way.
The first film of the franchise, known simply as The Purge, is essentially a siege film, but it gives us the premise of the series: the government, under the control of the New Founding Fathers of America (we can figure the appeal of Trump’s “Make America Great Again”), has legitimatized murder and all other mayhem for one night a year as a safety valve to bring down the out-of-control crime rate. We soon learn what is actually happening: the wealthy want to get rid of minorities and the poor – of all colors – as the 1% aspires to once-and-for-all hegemony in American society. The second film, The Purge: Anarchy, opens up the canvas, showing a debilitated, deindustrialized cityscape where minorities are set against each other – and chased by crazies and assorted vigilantes. This film also introduces a hero, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), a burn-out case who uses what seems like military skills to assist the innocent through the night. The third film The Purge: Election Year takes the near-future dystopia to its edge, as democracy is threatened by the NFFA through assassination and election sabotage.
The new film, The First Purge, has a frankness that makes it a more penetrating social indictment than Katharine Bigelow’s inauthentic Detroit, with its Direct Cinema pretenses. This Purge, a prequel, shows the origin of the “experiment” started by the NFFA and its social scientists including a Dr. May (Marisa Tomei), whose heart is supposed to be, finally, in the right place. We learn that Purge night is purely genocidal, aimed at the black community, at first just an isolated neighborhood on Staten Island, but, if successful, is to expand to the nation. This film, with a largely black cast (except for the scientists and their minions), becomes a fine emblem for Trump, Charlottesville, police shooting of blacks in cold blood, an awakening about the real cause of the Civil War, and an array of topics that show the US at a turning point.
There are aspects of the film that appear too formulaic, like a local drug dealer, Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) becoming a soldier for justice and defender of the population; this hearkens to films of the 70s (Jim Brown’s Slaughter films and others), where the black hero comes home, shocked to discover the evils he must wipe out single-handedly. But there is not much hyperbole here, as Dmitiri and fellow citizens work together, at a high cost, to save their lives, as they are set upon by the KKK, neo-Nazis, and paramilitary types. What would have been seen as bad cinematic judgment a decade ago is perfectly plausible as the US President makes excuses for KKK violence against the citizenry. The NFFA is astonished that as the Purge whistle is blown, there is little violence, the film debunking – not that it had to, although today the obligations of art carry a heavy burden, it seems – the “natural proclivities” of blacks for violence. Instead of mass violence, the neighborhood opts for a block party, enraging the omniscient NFFA. The white troops arrive, and in some startling cinematic sequences, filmed with tight, hand-held shots in blue-gray gray darkness, the population engages in hand-to-hand combat in the most frank moment of white racial fury against blacks since the early moments or Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Along the way, we might contemplate the neglect of cities by private interest, and by the inauthentic, there’s-always-hope politicians who have actually stoked the urban crisis as the public good goes begging.
But there are problems. The film opens with a close-up interrogation of a scarred, crazed drug dealer/addict named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), who, with the rap song ending the film (featuring the word “nigger” prominently) might be an instance of the culture industry once again selling what it pretends to condemn. But Skeletor dies a hero, so we can’t be too harsh. But we consider also the industry already spawned by this very successful film; it, like its predecessors, features horrifying masks as part of the mise-en-scene – they are available from your favorite online vendor.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International and a Contributing Writer for Cineaste.