The First Purge is actually the fourth film in the crude political parable series that has been going for many years now but is the first to operate as a prequel. In case you are new to the series, the series is about the alternative United States where crime is legal for 12 hours once a year. The night is known as the national purge.
The original film was in part successful because it had a What Would You Do? type premise that toyed with moralistic decisions. The two sequels largely abandoned any morality in favor of pure survival escapism. This prequel, the first not to be directed by James DeMonaco, tries to recapture some of the first film's attempts at making us ask ourselves who would we be on Purge night. Directed by Gerald McMurray, this film switches away from white suburbia and Frank Grillo's veteran character to feature an all-black cast. It is a change that welcomes new imagery into the series and maybe the best since the original film.
We learn early that the New Founding Fathers of America, NFFA, are going to be testing a new social experiment on the inhabitants of Staten Island. Early on we meet a trio of protagonists that reflect the many reactions to such a messed up idea. There is headstrong activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) who wants nothing to do with the event. Her younger brother Isiah (Joivan Wade) is eager to participate in order to get even with a psychopathic drug addict that cut him on the streets. And then there is Dmitri (Y'lan Noel) who is the island's top drug kingpin who doesn't trust the experiment but also doesn't have any plans on taking a side. They represent the marginalized community that is clearly being exploited for political gain by the NFFA. Participants will be paid extra but anyone who stays on the island will receive a payout. The Purge series has never been subtle with its subtext or message but this film comes at things from a fresh angle. Rarely do horror films represent the marginalized, unless directed by George Romero.
McMurray consistently gives The First Purge its own set of provocative images. The creepy contact lenses that participants are given create a series of inhuman looking creatures with glowing eyes. However, it is his images that reflect the current terrible America we live in that sets the film apart from the last two entries. There is a massacre at a black church, a militia of Klansman, a group of white cops beating black bodies on a baseball field. These are not subtle scenes but they are provocative and reveal that The First Purge is coming from an angry black filmmaker who wants to challenge what we see on the news.
This isn't to say that The First Purge doesn't suffer from the same silly elements as the other films in the series. The storyline involving Marisa Tomei as a scientist running the experiment who realizes that the whole thing is a political maneuver is eye-rolling in its execution. Still, it would be hard to not see the film's conscience political agenda. Unlike the other films in the series that seem to imply that all Americans are one moment away from murdering each other, this film argues that communities will stick together and watch out for each other. This is especially powerful considering the setting is in a poor community of mostly people of color.
Aside from the striking point of view the film has, this also feels like a star making moment for Y'lan Noel. I hope he gets to star in a more straightforward action film soon. He proves here, in every scene, to be compelling and wholly convincing as a badass. It is cathartic to see him kill KKK members and defend his community.