The First Purge was better when it was five other movies and 90% less racist

Not only should you not see The First Purge; you should question if anyone who thinks it’s okay that it was made should be allowed to vote.

The film has two major problems (and a baker’s dozen of smaller ones): it is both a bad film and grossly exploitive. If you like ham-fisted analogies ripped from the headlines like a Speed Weed penned episode of Law & Order, then you might think this film is deep or on message. Every character in this film is undercooked, but the black ones are all caricatures from equally bad films: the superhero drug dealer, the neck-rolling girlfriend, the activist girlfriend, the magical crackhead, the naïve corner boy, the wise oldhead, the military-taut street gang.

The movie is bad – poorly acted, poorly directed, and poorly written – but equally infuriating are its many middle-of-the-road reviews. Written mostly by white critics, these cowardly reviews read as if they’re written by people who know from a good film but don’t want to be called racist in a hair-trigger Twitter-dragging society. The hesitation forces them into a huge disservice, managing to make them seem more racist than if they’d just come out and said, “Yeah, this is a bad film that’s trying real hard to be deep.” A poorly written film is a poorly written film, and let’s be clear: The First Purge is laugh-out-loud stupid, yet half of the reviews describe it as “resonant” and “timely” and “provocative.” But when this movie was Bushwick (and better), critics dogged it out as “unpolished” and “shallow” and “paper-thin”. The only thing The First Purge does better than Bushwick is diversity casting. Every frame of Purge as a film is otherwise inferior to Bushwick, and anything else that came out the same weekend.

To the people who think any news is good news when it comes to speaking out on issues and maybe believes that any movie that tries to speak to injustice is better than silence, you’re wrong. This is definitely an instance in which I would have preferred the news not exist. If you’re using trash like this movie to score points in political arguments, you need more books in your life. I can see why the film is buoyed in some people’s minds by the times, but I would point out that the movie’s “timeliness” is entirely due to creator/writer/usual director James DeMonaco’s adjacency to 24-hour news channels. The First Purge speaks to the Trump era because all Purge films speak to whatever is dominating the news cycle in the previous year. They are intentionally formulaic. If Clinton had won the election this film would have featured a band of soccer moms trying to Odysseus their way to a PTA meeting. If Sanders had won it would have featured a bunch of union workers trying to escape the unleashed wrath of their Wall Street overlords. Those are comic projections (OR ARE THEY?) but the thing you can count as fact is that next year there will be a Purge property. You won’t make it out of this year without a TV series. The only question will be who gets to deliver the killing blows in the next installment.

The First Purge is what you get when a white guy who thinks he’s politically savvy writes a film about people and issues he doesn’t really know, then hands it off to a black person to direct to run interference on whatever he got wrong, or worse, absolution. And yet, nothing that director Gerard McMurray brings to this film could right-correct this farce from its source material, which is a neoliberal perception of what #BlackLivesMatter means funneled through a diet of blaxploitation films and biological determinism. The drug dealer with a heart of gold as action hero is conceptually and visually ridiculous (my favorite description of him from Twitter was “Crack Panther”), and that’s before you realize that lead actor Y’lan Noel is channeling Nino Brown from New Jack City doing Blade stunts. I’m talking really acrobatic blade-wielding, gun-fu stunts. I guess his script came with the Wesley Snipes DVD pack for method reference. Are there any black people in Staten Island who just go to work, come home and raise kids? If there are DeMonaco doesn’t know them, and frankly doesn’t care. I feel compelled to give rookie director McMurray a pass here, not because he’s black, but because I can’t imagine he had much clout going into this well-established franchise with the creator over his shoulder pointing at the script. I want that to be true because I want to believe no black director would have let this script slide.

The First Purge is worse than just a bad film; it is irresponsible. The issues it tramples over to get to the action it really wants to display are not pedestrian issues. Black people are dying in disproportionate numbers from drugs, police abuse, governmental neglect, and economic disparity. It pretends to mean well, but really just uses stereotypes of black people to make soundbite-level talking points. There is a way to make a film that addresses those issues and feeds an entertainment itch. It’s been done many, many times (often by many of the films this film borrows inspiration from). But The First Purge isn’t one of them. It’s politically dull, cinematically lazy, and politically perilous.


  1. Blade
  2. New Jack City
  3. Demolition Man
  4. Sugar Hill
  5. Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video

4 thoughts on “The First Purge was better when it was five other movies and 90% less racist

  1. What if the film was meant to be a comic projection? Over the top satire, even? Ok, I’m speaking from ignorance. I haven’t seen any of the franchise. I doubt I will ever. But just from reading your review, it seems as if they hit their mark.

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