Over the past several weeks as civil unrest spreads across the country in response to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, several people have compared the situation to the movies in The Purge franchise. However, these takes not only misunderstand the protests, they seemingly don't understand that The Purge is not, and never has been, a series about "a crime being legal," but about a government that uses race to divide and oppress in favor of a white supremacist elite.
This isn't surprising, as it continues other facile understanding of much of pop culture by both right-wingers, lefty elites, and even Trump. Indeed, Trump's 2020 campaign tagline, "Keep America Great," was also the tagline of The Purge: Election Year. In the films, The New Founding Fathers have taken over America and invite all Americans to participate in a yearly "purge" where all crime is legal for 12 hours.
The surface takes on the yearly purges as an institution is they are as advertised: a yearly time of lawlessness where people "purge" their negative impulses so society can be more lawful the rest of the time. But as the films progress, we find that it was never actually about purging criminality or celebrating violence as it was a social experiment to allow the strong (usually well-armed white people and very specifically white supremacists) to hunt those they have always felt are subhuman, especially Black people.
Reviewing The Purge Movies
Ironically, The Purge films didn't start with a clear political or ideological message. Instead, The Purge (2013) was mostly a home invasion horror thriller with a subtle dig at increasing inequality in society. Ethan Hawke plays a rich architect who designs and sells security systems to the rich to allow them to escape the yearly mayhem. But when a poor African American veteran (Edwin Hodge) asks for shelter, white purgers demand entry to the home to murder their quarry. The political undertones are there, but they're not front and center.
In The Purge: Anarchy (2014) and The Purge: Election Year (2016), the story continues, but this time on the streets of Los Angeles and Washington, DC. The unnamed stranger from the first film is revealed to be Dante Bishop, working with Carmelo Johns (Michael K. Williams) as an underground resistance. In this film, the annual purge is revealed to be more about murdering the poor so the government spends less money on social services for the poor. There are also violent white supremacist gangs using the night for their own devices, and auctions by the rich to be able to hunt people in contained environments.
It's ironic that Election Year may be the least political of the series, even as it was released in 2016 and featured a female presidential candidate (Elizabeth Mitchell) running on an anti-purge platform. Of course, the New Founding Fathers can't have any of that, so they set her up to be conveniently assassinated by Neo-Nazis during the annual purge. She is protected by, among others, a multiracial family protecting their deli, as well as Dante Bishop and his resistance movement. Again, the purge is revealed as primarily a method of oppressing and murdering Black, Latinx, and other communities of color to save the government money on spending on the poor. But even more interesting, it delves into how the media covers the annual purges and how activists are getting their own messages out about what the purge is really about.
This becomes even more explicit in The First Purge, where we see the origins of the movement. On Staten Island, the New Founding Fathers propose the first "all crime is legal" night and entice residents to stay with a $5,000 incentive, in exchange for wearing "purge" contact lenses and tracking chips that allow the government and the media to monitor what is happening. Their experiment fails, when most residents engage in boozy and drug-enhanced Purge Parties instead of chaos. There are some limited looting and property damage, and initially only one murder, so the New Founding Fathers send in white supremacist gangs and military police to hunt the mostly black community of the Park Hill Housing Project to make sure their experiment "works."
Why We Should Be Concerned The News Looks Like The Purge
The Purge films' real dystopia is not that crime is legal and people riot and loot, it's that Black Lives Don't Matter, to the point where the government is purging them along with other poor communities of color, and protecting upper-class white people. And like all dystopian fiction, the question is what can we learn and what must we change to prevent this from happening?
The sad truth is we don't need a yearly purge to allow white supremacists and police to wantonly murder black people. And so if the scenes on the news seem like they're coming from The Purge films, it's because white supremacists and militarized police forces are using this opportunity to target the people they view as subhuman.
And so when you see bad faith takes from known right-wing provocateurs putting audio from The Purge over protests in Minneapolis, or hear comparisons on Fox News comparing protesters for social justice with the horror franchise, know that you're not only being manipulated by people with an agenda to stir up more violence and hate but also that they don't understand The Purge movies at all.
How You Can Help
The protests against police brutality now span the entire globe, and there are many ways you can get involved. You can go out and peacefully protest if you want. You can also donate to numerous organizations that are doing a lot of good work for the cause. Here is a list of just some of them:
- Minnesota Freedom Fund
- George Floyd Memorial Fund
- I Run With Maud
- Black Visions Collective
- Reclaim the Block
- Campaign Zero
- Communities United Against Police Brutality
- Black Lives Matter
- NAACP Legal Defense Fund
- American Civil Liberties Union
Over at AfroTech, there is a great list of five apps that can help you find black businesses to help support in these trying times. The rest of us should be supporting, protecting, and lifting up our black friends, family, colleagues, and total strangers whenever we possibly can.