As someone who writes about horror, I was interested in the eruption of The Purge into the news this week after Freddie Gray died in police custody. As a story on CNN.com put it: “In a sobering example of life imitating art, the chaos sweeping the streets of Baltimore may have been partly inspired by a series of action-horror movies.” Some high-school kids apparently circulated plans about a “purge” on social media on Monday afternoon (April 27). ‘Baltimore going purge,” read one tweet.[i] And the riots themselves, later that night, were compared to The Purge: “The purge is happening in Baltimore,” tweeted at least one observer.[ii]
It all made me wonder—what do the two Purge films actually say about violence? I’m not a fan of films being reduced to a “meme”—or, I’m not a fan of that happening without some counterbalancing discussion of the complexity of the film, if it is indeed more complex. And The Purge (2013) and The Purge: Anarchy (2014), both written and directed by James DeMonaco, are more complex.
At first glance The Purge (the first one) appears to contradict any of the possible aims of those who took to the streets of Baltimore on Monday night. The violence that’s unleashed for 12 hours every year, called “the purge,” explicitly serves to maintain the system. The citizens of a barely-future USA (2022) get to “unleash the beast” with impunity so that they can then go back to working obediently and living lawfully. Plus the population’s been culled significantly so there’s almost total employment. The forces of unrest in Baltimore, whether rioting, looting, or uprising, didn’t seem interested in maintaining the system—were, in fact, either enacting or protesting their utter disgust with and alienation from the system. So why reference The Purge?
On top of that, the film clearly conveys an anti-violent message. The two main characters (played by Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey) end up working with a man, the “stranger” (Edwin Hodge) whom their son lets into their house, after, at first, being willing to sacrifice him to the purging mob. While Ethan Hawke dies, his wife, their children, and the “stranger” refuse, in the end, to exact bloody vengeance. They resist the urge to purge—waiting out the last hours of purge night rather than taking bloody vengeance.
Purge: Anarchy is very different, however. It’s a mess of a film—all over the place both spatially and narratively (unlike the more claustrophobic first film which remained mostly with one family and in one house). As is often true with flawed films, though, Anarchy is in many ways more interesting in its incoherencies. It did, moreover, seem to resonate with what kids in Baltimore seemed to mean when they talked about “purging.”
Woven throughout the plot of Anarchy is an explicitly political uprising intent on disrupting the purge, led by Carmelo (Michael K. Williams) and the “Stranger” from the first film. This anarchist group spreads the message that the purge is the government’s way of getting rid of the poor, declaring that “this year we will fight back.” They won’t stop till the blood of the wealthy is shed. As Carmelo proclaims: “Fuck you. Fuck your money. And motherfuck the purge.” This plot is played out verbally as a class divide, but visually it’s about race. The wealthy—who bid on people that they then stalk in a staged “hunting ground”—are exclusively white. And the rebels are exclusively black.
The plot about systemic oppression is, however, juxtaposed with but never clearly sutured to the main plot, which involves three characters, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter Cali (Zoë Soul), who, like the main characters in the first Purge, refuse violence. In fact, this is the principal message at the end of Anarchy. Leo ends up abandoning his plan to avenge himself on the man who killed his son—and then, in a pointed message about the salutary effects of non-violence, that man saves his life. He, Eva, and Cali (who all along had urged Leo not to “purge”) rush him to hospital and the film leaves us with the sense they will become a literal, not just a metaphorical, multicultural family—just as the first Purge ends with a white woman, two white kids, and an African-American man. These “families” of circumstance, small groups of people who band together on purge night, stand as an unambiguous argument against violence.
While the film ends with an explicit message of anti-violence, twenty minutes earlier it offered the last shot of the uprising—black anarchists mowing down rich white people, with the tacit approval of the protagonists, whose lives the anarchists saved. From that point on, the film confines itself only to Leo, Eva, and Cali, but, by implication, it suggests that the violence of the uprising, starkly divided by race and class, will continue—even though it is then directly contradicted by the creation of the surviving multicultural family, which is founded on the refusal of violence.
Anarchy is, then, fundamentally divided against itself: it represents mass violence as necessary to redress systemic equality, and it pits black against white and rich against poor. But it also represents (as did The Purge) small groups of people of many races, rich and poor, banding together and explicitly rejecting violence.
The films, then, embody a fundamental narrative and political incoherence. But perhaps, in their incoherence, the Purge films signal a truth about the difficulties of real-world politics: thinking in terms of “us” versus “them” can be dehumanizing and can lead to violence. Yet awareness of systemic inequality and oppression is crucial for social change. On the other hand, banding together with others regardless of race or class, and focusing on personal ties of affiliation and friendship, can certainly reduce the risk of violence. But it often keeps the larger system intact. And, indeed, the small mixed-race groups of both Purge films offer no answers to the inequalities of purge night: if the story were just about them, presumably the purge would just roll on. It’s the anarchists, who engage in the violence that all the main characters refuse, who might possibly end purge night. Or they might continue it. The film cops out at the end by leaving the outcome of the uprising hanging.
[i] “Baltimore’s Riot’s and ‘The Purge,” CNN.com, April 29, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/28/us/baltimore-riots-purge-movie-feat/. See also, for example, “Explaining ‘The Purge,” The New York Times, April 28, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/live/confrontation-in-baltimore/explaining-the-purge/, and “Baltimore Sun Floats Theory that ‘Purge’ Movie Fuelling Violence,” Talking Points Memo Livewire, April 27, 2015, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/baltimore-sun-juveniles-purge-violence.
[ii] “Baltimore Riots Compared to ‘The Purge,’” USA Today, April 28, 2015. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2015/04/28/baltimore-riots-twitter-the-purge-freddie-gray/26502459/.