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Film Review - The First Purge

Lex Scott Davis and Joivan Wade, right, in a scene from "The First Purge." 

The First Purge

At Cinemark

(R)

Grade: C

“The Purge” sci-fi/horror franchise was launched in 2013 as a concept series with philosophical and psychological undertones.

Every year the citizens of America were permitted 12 hours of lawlessness when murder and other crimes would not be prosecuted. We were invited to wonder how our neighbors might act if there were no threat of punishment. More to the point, how would we act?

In short, the premise tests the age old ethical question of how moral we are when no one is looking. Are we guided by a moral code, or simply trying to avoid punishment?

I hoped those questions would be explored more deeply, but alas, this is a slash and trash horror series, and the mayhem quickly supplanted any pretense of pondering.

In fairness, a few scenes in the first three installments have been thoughtful, as people resisted the temptation to exploit their new freedom.

The latest installment in the “Purge” franchise is decidedly political. The allegorical script explicitly critiques the government’s treatment of minorities and the poor -- while never naming Trump.

And we’re not talking adapting immigration laws here -- we’re talking about an administration that finds a legal way to purge -- aka kill -- the poor and the non-white. In this story the government even sends out its own clandestine forces, who act and dress like KKK Nazis, to kill minorities throughout Purge night.

Most of the cast is black, setting white government forces against black citizens. By the time the night is done, the drug dealers will become the saviors of Staten Island by forming their own rebel force to oppose government forces.

The script, in essence, becomes an arm of the Black Lives Matter movement -- and one inspired by the eye-for-an-eye dictums of Malcom X rather than by the peaceful tactics of Martin Luther King.

Despite its high-concept ambitions, “First Purge” isn’t a very good film. We’ve seen great political allegories, such as Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.” Last’s year’s “Get Out” was a race relations allegory of some power.

While “First Purge” ultimately regrets the violence, it simultaneously exploits violence, and thus ends up being a rather hypocritical political/philosophical tract.

Many reviews of “First Purge” are explosively political.

Here’s a sampling:

“’The First Purge’ never tries to hide its political message, repeatedly demonstrating how the country’s rich, white leadership systematically oppresses the minority underclass while also blaming them for society’s problems.”

Another review puts the film historical context:

“(‘The Purge’ films) have turned into a surprisingly sharp dissection of the ugliness that has lurked in American political discourse for as long as the country has existed.

And, finally, the most gloves-off review may be from the “Village Voice.”

“Yes, it’s a sick idea, but with each passing year we seem to inch ever closer to feeling like we might one day have one of these things for real. Every time (someone) is allowed to present the idea of blowing up the entire American system of government as some kind of plausible solution for his grievances — be it social, cultural, or economic — or a politician is allowed to trample laws and norms because ‘people are angry,’ you realize how far we’ve gone down the path of allowing the notion that humanity and society are an acceptable trade-off for individuated rage and, even worse, convenience.”

What we are seeing is that film, more than ever, is becoming political in response to a highly charged political culture. In turn, critics are sharpening their pens to join the dialogue.

That’s as it should be.

In a time when free expression is under attack the cure is ratchet up the voices of those being oppressed -- and the fourth estate is a potent megaphone to amplify those messages.

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