Updated: Aug 25
While we have come a long way since Jim Crow, it’s no secret there are still hierarchical power structures that benefit some and oppress others. This is exactly what The Purge franchise rages against by boldly commenting on the sociopolitical state of American society. In his essay “Coloniality and Modertinity/Rationality,” Aníbal Quijano argues that although,
Eurocentered colonialism, in the sense of a formal system of political domination
by Western European societies over others, seems a question of the past . . . if we
observe the main lines of exploitation and social domination on a global scale
today . . . it is very clear that the large majority of the exploited, the dominated, the discriminated against are precisely the members of the ‘races’, ‘ethnies’, or ‘nations’ into which the colonized populations were categorized in the formative process of that world power, from the conquest of America and onward. (168- 169).
That is, though colonialism as a system is officially gone, remnants of its oppressive power structures remain in full operation maintaining those once deemed inferior at the bottom of the international hierarchy. This is what Quijano refers to as the “coloniality of power” and what The Purge franchise critiques. While the coloniality of power is an unpleasant reality that continues to negatively affect underrepresented and underprivileged minority communities, its unapologetic exposition can not only function to unmask social injustice, but also empower the affected communities by showcasing the resilience they have developed as a consequence of the oppression they have faced.
There are at least two major reasons the The Purge franchise has managed to expose the coloniality of power unscathed: first, it is a horror franchise and, second, its major producer is Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions. The horror genre is especially adept at speaking to contemporary issues because of its use and manipulation of anxiety, fear, and the repressed/uncanny (to borrow a term from Freud), as well as horror’s tendency to rely on psychoanalytical theory. According to D. L. White in his essay “The Poetics of Horror: More than Meets the Eye,” “The fears in horror films rise from sociological as well as psychological themes” (137). White claims, “More realistic, more contemporary horror films . . . can help people deal with such fears, can help both those who make the films and those who experience them to face and . . . see more clearly not only the nature of the fears brought on by contemporary society but the nature of that society itself” (144).
The Purge’s commentary is also helped by Blumhouse Production’s commitment to investing in small-budget films and giving filmmakers creative control. While other producers might shy away from blatant commentary and unknown directors that can pose a financial risk, Blum continues to take cinematic risks churning out massively profitable films such as Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007) and James Wan’s Insidious (2010), and Scott Derrickson’s Sinister (2012) on a budget of less than $5 million.
The sociopolitical critique in the franchise is introduced subtly in the first film, James DeMonaco’s The Purge (2013). Soundbites of news explain that the Purge was suggested by the New Founding Fathers (NFFA) after a “a quadruple dip recession followed by a full market crash, a skyrocketing debt, multiple wars, and a significant dollar devaluation” caused a radical increase in crime and poverty. The commentary begins with the persecution of a black, homeless man that is harbored by the affluent James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and his family. A gang of privileged individuals soon arrive at Sandin’s door step demanding he give up the homeless man because “he is nothing but a dirty, homeless pig . . . “[a]piece of filth [that] exists only to fulfill our need to purge.”
By the time the Purge happens in the second film, DeMonaco’s The Purge: Anarchy (2014), a resistance including none other than the homeless man from the first film (or “Bloody Stranger, as he’s credited) has already organized and is planning to fight back. Carmelo Johns, a Malcom X type character, is the leader of this resistance and, ultimately, is the salvation of the few anti-purgers that end up being auctioned off as human prey.
In the third film, DeMonaco’s The Purge: Election Year (2016), the “Bloody Stranger” is finally named, Dante Bishop, and resistance turns to activism. Bishop, with the help of multiple volunteers, establishes a secure emergency service center and shelter for those who cannot afford to protect themselves during the Purge. One of the presidential candidates, Senator Charlie Roan, is a staunch advocate for the elimination of the Purge, pointing out that “more low-income people are killed during the Purge than anyone else. The money generated from the Purge lines the pockets of the NRA and insurance companies.” The result of this opposition to the NFFA is a murder attempt on Senator Roan, one that, though unsuccessful, gets her and her security stranded outside on Purge night. It’s thanks to Bishop and a shop owner and employee from a low-income neighborhood that Senator Roan survives the night.
The fourth film, Gerard McMurray’s The First Purge (2018), takes us back to the Purge’s trial run. It is conducted as an experiment and is thus contained to Staten Island, New York; an interesting choice considering Staten Island is known by New Yorkers as the “Forgotten Borough.” The film focuses on the activity in Park Hill, a predominantly black low-income neighborhood with a rising Hispanic and Asian population where people must decide whether to stay for the hefty prize of $5,000, plus extra for further participation, or leave and ensure their safety. Unsurprisingly, most of the impoverished stay because of the economic incentive. One of the protagonists, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), explains, “They have monetized and incentivized murder . . . wealthy areas are already clearing, but the NFFA knew that we, the impoverished, would stay if there was monetary gain.” Essentially, what the NFFA has done is legalize the mass genocide of low-income minorities. Interestingly, it is Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), the neighborhood’s big drug lord, that saves the day when he discovers mercenaries disguised as civilians have been hired to make it look like people are participating in the Purge. Dmitri exclaims, “The NFFA been putting all this shit [weaponry] in the streets . . . hoping that we’d off each other . . . and when we didn’t and now their stoking the fire in another mother-fuckin’ way . . . There’s a lot of good people out there we are going to have to protect now . . .” This is the crown jewel of the sociopolitical critique in The First Purge; not only did the targeted civilians not satisfactorily participate in the Purge, but the neighborhood was also saved by the people it was meant to eradicate.
Clearly, The Purge franchise employs hyperbole to get its point across, but the events that lead to the Purge are not that hyperbolic. Recession, war, economic crisis, and rising crime and poverty rates are all things Americans have suffered; and, yet, social injustice persists through processes like redlining. What The Purge franchise looks to demonstrate is that the communities being showcased are resilient. Thus, the cinematic viewing of The Purge films can act as what post-colonial and feminist scholar María Lugones would call a meeting at the “site of colonial difference,” colonial difference referring to the invisible, but very real, mark that colonialism and like oppressive systems left on all races and ethnicities that have been historically subjugated; consequently, Lugones theorizes that meeting at the site of colonial difference is “. . . necessary for those resisting dehumanization in different and intermingled locals” (752-753). The Purge franchise not only informs an often ignored public as to the structures and ideologies that oppress it, but also creates a space where the traditionally marginalized can come together without erasing their individual lived experiences and create a new like-minded community characterized by the colonial mark. In exhibiting resistance to social injustice, The Purge films instill and support the idea of political dissent that actively works to encourage the underprivileged and eradicate elitism.