Saturday, February 23, 2019

Movie Reviews: The First Purge

The First Purge
directed by Gerard McMurry
In his satirical novel Breakfast of Champions the late author Kurt Vonnegut wrote that many White Americans thought of Black Americans as obsolete farm machinery which they sadly couldn't discard. There are other novels and movies which have depicted a dystopic future in which the Black American population is reduced, transferred, or eliminated.

President Abraham Lincoln proposed encouraging Blacks to go to Africa. Many people across the political spectrum have agitated for formal separation between Black and White. And there are some people who, convinced that there are simply too many Blacks breathing up the white man's air, want to get rid of Blacks permanently. This latest installment in the Purge series is a prequel, thus the title. But it is also the first film to unabashedly center Black people and make it clear that the primary purpose of the purge is to reduce the number of Black people in America. 

This movie unsubtly reminds the viewer that until the 1930s~1940s or so "race riots" usually meant that large numbers of white people would violently attack much smaller numbers of Black people for the slightest provocation, real or imagined. It was only in the 1960s that "race riots" came to mean blacks rioting, burning and looting. This movie might not exist if not for the commercial success of Get Out. The movie lacks white heroes, something unusual for American films. The First Purge shows the viewer  a possible future where, under the guise of colorblind policy, America decides to reduce the "useless eaters" population, aka Black and Brown people.

After the 2008 financial crisis a new political party formed. It called itself the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA). It was more explicitly nationalist and right-wing. It won the Presidency and control of the House and Senate.  

Dr. May Updale (Marisa Tomei) is a psychiatrist interested in why people commit violence. Updale claims to be apolitical and scientific, not ideological, but has aligned herself with the NFFA. With the NFFA's blessing and logistical support the doctor has arranged a social experiment in which for 12 hours people can commit any crime they want without fear of arrest or prosecution. 

The NFFA limits the experiment to certain (predominantly Black/Hispanic??) areas of Staten Island. The NFFA will pay people who stay on the island and pay more to those who participate. The doctor's hypothesis is that if people have a sanctioned method to vent then they will be less violent for the rest of the year. Crime and associated costs will fall.

In this Staten Island neighborhood Dmitri (Y'lan Noel) the proverbial hoodlum with the heart of gold, controls criminal activities. Dmitri has a rudimentary civic nature. Dmitri doesn't bother law abiding people. Dmitri provides charity for neighborhood youth, at least those who aren't working for his organization. Dmitri accepts that his career path comes with an expiration date via prison or other gangs. Dmitri is more fatalistic since he broke up with the attractive and optimistic but moralistic Nya (Lex Scott Davis) a young woman who deplores Dmitri's business and what she sees as his wasted leadership talents. 

Nya is unafraid to get in Dmitri's face, particularly once she discovers that her younger brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) has been working for Dmitri's people. An anti-purge activist, Nya will remain on Staten Island and help the community. 

Dmitri also intends to stay on Staten Island, not because he's going to participate in the purge, which he thinks is stupid and bad for business, but in order to protect his property and product. 

Having been publicly badly bullied, frightened, and wounded by the local crackhead Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) the inexperienced and unblooded Isaiah thinks that the upcoming purge could be the right time to settle accounts with Skeletor and thereby make his own street rep. Isaiah doesn't share his plans with Nya or Dmitri. As the purge begins Dr. Updale oversees the initial activity. Updale in turn is monitored by a mild mannered NFFA functionary named Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh). 

Dr. Updale discovers that when you dine with the devil you need to use a very long spoon. Dmitri learns that he has some nobility and altruism within. This is a horror movie through and through. The violence is not lovingly depicted in slow motion closeups. Things happen very quickly. The film features plenty of jump cuts but they work. This movie was by equal turns cartoonish and cathartic. If he so desires Noel could be a convincing action hero in the mold of Steve James, Michael Jai White, Stallone, Snipes or other muscular archetypes who always have time for a cutting one liner before blowing stuff up. If your tolerance for violence is low to non-existent, this isn't the movie for you. Some of the dialogue is occasionally cheesy but that's par for the course.

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