Have you been dying to know how the first Purge happened? I have — but not in the narrative sense. I don’t much care what sort of backstory might have led to Ethan Hawke holing up in a suburban McMansion five years ago. No, I’m more interested in how The First Purge happened from a production standpoint. Is there really sufficient consumer demand for these things to continue to pop up with biennial regularity? Is that the world we live in? I guess it’s Jason Blum’s cinematic hellscape now, and we’re just paying rent every other year.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that Blumhouse exists — it has consistently turned out some of the most interesting genre films of the last decade. With that in mind, I must also begrudgingly accept the repetitive doldrums of reviewing a Purge movie every couple of years, since that seems to be how Blumhouse foots the bill for some of the riskier productions on its slate. So if The First Purge — really the fourth Purge, but who’s counting? — rakes in a boatload of cash, I can’t complain too strenuously. However, as some of you may have surmised, I’m going to anyway.
Set in a dystopian future closer to our present reality than the prior Purge films, The First Purgedetails the initial experiment devised by America’s fascist overlords, the New Founding Fathers, to allow citizens a one-night, consequence-free anarchic crime spree in the name of some nebulous social catharsis. Here we see the concept’s originator (a severely underutilized Marissa Tomei) setting up the first free-for-all, a voluntary night of purging on Staten Island in which participants are rewarded with a little cash for their troubles.
Caught between the government’s nefarious plans to help poor people kill each other off and those same people’s desire to escape their state of disenfranchisement are some of the most thinly characterized black stereotypes this side of a Wayans Brothers movie. We’ve got the well-meaning drug kingpin, his virtuous but tough-as-nails ex-girlfriend with an activist streak and her innocent younger brother drifting into a life of crime to help make ends meet. If the abysmal Meet the Blacks was the black Purge parody, The First Purge is the franchise’s full-on blaxploitation response.
Political commentary has always been a hallmark of the Purge series, and here it’s at its most overt. If 2013’s The Purge was about white-flight anxieties, The First Purge is the Black Lives Matter counterpoint. It strains to touch on every pertinent social hot-button from torch-toting, Charlottesville-style white nationalists to Nazis and Klansmen, with a particularly clunky Trumpian crotch-grab gag thrown in for good measure — all that’s missing is a few Pepe the Frog memes. But as The First Purge tries harder and harder to prove how woke it is, it only comes across as increasingly racist and tone-deaf, despite its predominantly black cast and black director Gerard McMurray. This might come down to veteran Purge writer and noted white dude James DeMonaco, but it could just as easily be attributed to the fact that The First Purge was always meant to be exploitative, disposable summer counterprogramming that nobody put all that much thought into. And in that regard, The First Purge more or less hits its mark — but as with the other films in the series, I walked out of this one mystified that a series of movies whose entire premise is based on the concept of catharsis offers so little of it to the audience.