(Note: This post contains all the spoilers for “The First Purge.” The movie is also pretty hard on America, so read on at your own risk!)
The “Purge” movies have gradually shifted from horror tales about the potentially awful humans we share a society with, to political allegory about extremism in America today, to drawing what feels like a pretty clear line from current Republican leadership to the film’s near-future dystopia. But no “Purge” movie has been quite as explicit about its political commentary as the fourth installment, this week’s “The First Purge.”
“The First Purge” tells the story of how the U.S. could be made to accept an annual 12-hour period in which all crime becomes legal and Americans are free to murder each other consequence-free. The beginning of the movie shows how the New Founding Fathers of America, the extremist political party behind the Purge, manages to gain power. It’s also full of thinly veiled (and extremely not veiled at all) comments about our own country, suggesting we’re not nearly so far away from the Purge being a reality as we might believe. Even the movie’s release date on the Fourth of July is a pointed comment.
Here are all the ways “The First Purge” makes a comment about the current state of America.
Shaking up Washington
The New Founding Fathers of America roll into power for a number of reasons, but a big one is a perceived failure by both the Republican and Democratic parties to represent the people. The party shows up promising big changes, even though we don’t see them offer a whole lot of explanation of what those will be — and the idea of the Purge comes up later, so it’s not something people are voting on. Sounds a lot like the vague and empty rhetoric of Donald Trump in the 2016 election, though.
The opioid epidemic
The big factor in the election of the NFFA is strife in America. The country is struggling economically during the election, undergoing a massive recession like the one the world suffered in 2008. Another big part of the turmoil: the opioid epidemic. Pundits in the early montage of “The First Purge” specifically reference this drug problem as having a major effect on the country. Of course, solving the crisis of people abusing and overdosing on opioids is also something Trump has been harping on since before the election.
Massive NRA endorsements
“The First Purge” presents the original idea of the Purge night as a sociological experiment carried out on Long Island. The NFFA says it plans to see if the Purge is something that can help reduce strife in America by allowing people to get out their aggressive feelings. Not everyone is on board with the idea, but one powerful interest group is fully supportive: the National Rifle Association. In the movie, NRA billboards encourage people to protect their Second Amendment rights and arm themselves for the experiment. Obviously, a yearly Purge would be very lucrative for gun manufacturers, since it is a huge incentive to get everyone to buy a gun, for either mayhem purposes, or just protection. Over in the real world, much has been made of the NRA’s political contributions to conservative politicians, especially as the gun control debate rages around mass shootings.
After venturing out into the Purge night to save her brother, activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) finds herself attacked by one particularly gross lawbreaker. This guy hangs out in the sewers, Pennywise-style, and uses a literal snare to catch Nya’s leg. While she’s stuck there, he reaches out of the sewer grate to grab her between the legs. Nya gets away, but not before calling to mind Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape, in which he talks about how, as a star, he can “grab women by the pussy.”
Mercenaries on Purge night
Later in “The First Purge,” it becomes clear that most people on Staten Island aren’t really getting into the Purge idea, much to the chagrin of the NFFA. The government responds by sending groups of mercenaries in to run around and commit murder. As 7 & 7 (Mo McRae) tells Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), the tactics of those guys reminds him of Blackwater mercenaries who operated in Iraq in the 2000s. In the real world, Blackwater mercenaries infamously shot and killed 17 civilians in Iraq in 2007. Four Blackwater contractors were convicted of crimes for their actions in the massacre, including one for murder and three for manslaughter.
The intel was wrong and they went ahead with it anyway
Back in 2003 the United States invaded Iraq under the pretext that the country was building weapons of mass destruction — an rationale that later was proven to be categorically false. Similarly, the natural results of the first Purge experiment clearly showed that they were wrong to try it — their intel was wrong and it turned out people generally did not want to murder each other — but the NFFA just sent in those mercenaries to kill a bunch of people to skew the sample. They essentially fake the evidence that the Purge is a legit concept, and then use that evidence to justify taking the Purge nationwide. Fascinating!
It later comes to light that at least some of the mercenaries operating on Staten Island aren’t even Americans — they’re soldiers “from all over,” as 7 & 7 puts it. But the only mercenaries we hear that aren’t speaking English are, quite pointedly, Russians. That calls to mind the Russian interference in the 2016 election, which is well-established by the law enforcement and intelligence communities, but still consistently denied by Trump and his supporters — much like the NFFA benefits from Russian mercenary involvement in pushing their Purge plan national.
Police brutality in a baseball stadium
There are a lot of layers to this one. As the Purge night ramps up with paid gangs of soldiers roaming Staten Island, killing anyone they come across, “The First Purge” cuts to a baseball stadium, where a group of white men dressed as police officers (whether they’re actual police is unclear) follow a crawling black man, preparing to beat him with nightsticks. The parallel to real-world police brutality, specifically cases like the Rodney King beating, is pretty obvious. Shooting the scene in a baseball stadium calls to mind the saying “As American as baseball and apple pie,” making a substantial comment about the ubiquity of police violence against people of color. You might also read one more layer into the scene as well — since it takes place in a sports venue, it’s hard not to think of kneeling athletes protesting against police killings of black people across the country, as well.
Nazi Ronald Reagan
The hardest-hitting commentary image in the entire movie comes late in its run, though. A gang of mercenaries stalks through the housing project tower where Nya and her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) live, killing everyone they find as they go floor-by-floor. Their leader is a masked man wearing what looks like a plastic Nazi SS officer’s uniform. When Dmitri shows up and pulls a “Die Hard” on the soldiers, taking several of them out as a lone fighter, the SS commander removes his mask — revealing a Ronald Reagan look-alike. Though he looks a bit like the “Max Headroom” version of Reagan from “Back to the Future II,” the hair and angular face are pretty iconic, suggesting the appearance of the 40th president and conservative hero.
‘The First Purge’ MAGA hat
This one didn’t show up in the movie, but rather, its marketing materials. The teaser poster for “The First Purge” put the title of the movie on a red baseball cap with white embroidery — the spitting image of one of the “Make America Great Again” hats worn (and sold) by Donald Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign. The symbolism of drawing a line between the politics of Trump and a night of legalized murder is pretty clear.