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The First Purge is dark but black stars shine

HORROR: Joivan Wade and Lex Scott Davis (Image: Universal Pictures)

ANY FILM that wants to even half-seriously tackle the horror of politics in the age of Trump, can’t ignore race. And, if you’re familiar with the Purge series, you’ll know that it puts politics front and centre, arguably more so with each offering.

The latest instalment of the franchise, out today, the same day as the US Independence Day holiday, The First Purge, is steered by a mainly black cast, something of a rarity for a mainstream Hollywood movie that’s not about historical brutality against black bodies.

The First Purge takes viewers back to the beginning. We get to see how this disturbing annual event when all crime, including murder, is declared legal by the government for a 12-hour period.

The guinea pigs of this disturbing concept are the community of Staten Island, a significant amount of whom make up the lower socio-economic portion of the society. Some choose to stay despite the dangers because of the financial benefit – anyone who takes part receives $5,000 – others for revenge and plenty to realise their twisted, sadistic and ordinarily illegal fantasies.

There are direct references to President Trump – at one point one of the main characters, Nya, (Lex Scott Davis) attacked by a Purge participant shouts “Pussy-grabbing mother******”; the rising far right and neo-Nazi movements and government surveillance.

The First Purge wrestles with a lot of relevant socio-political issues – race, sexual violence, population management, to name but a few. Horror can be a great genre for these kind of explorations and fuel conversations about these complex themes. The film's director believes so himself, stating in an interview with Deadline: "I felt like horror films wrestle with the evils of real life, and that was one of the things I wanted to do with this film.” But Nya’s aforementioned outburst is somewhat emblematic of the film’s struggle to find the equilibrium when there’s so much in the mix.

The writing is at times stilted – an atmosphere that’s heightened when comedic lines are dropped in ungainly – but the actors do well to make it worth watching.

This aside, the film is ambitious in more ways than one. As a Trump-era horror which fundamentally says monsters are real and they’re people, it does a great job of challenging stereotypes – both on and off-screen.

The island’s black community, of which gang boss Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel, Insecure) is one of the pivotal players, does not react to the purge as the authorities expect. And while most of the film takes place in the dark this unity and fight back that the black residents of Staten Island perform leaves you feeling that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

There’s a black director with Gerard McMurray (Burning Sands) at the helm, a departure from James DeMonaco the driving force behind the first three Purge films, although as the writer, he’s still very much a part of this one.

Joivan Wade (Isaiah) is one of the latest young black British actors experiencing success in the US. His performance is full of promise – accent included.

Davis’ Nya is no damsel in distress and while Dmitri may come to her aid she leads throughout, doesn’t call him for help and stands alongside him to fight.

Just as many of the fictional characters do the unexpected, McMurray’s offering does so for black actors.

As a horror fan and a black woman, I can’t help but want The First Purge to win. As Issa Rae would say: “I’m rooting for everybody black”, so a film like this is definitely one I’m down to support but not based on race alone. In spite of its failures, it’s a great choice if you’re looking for a Friday night fright or a scary movie at any time for that matter. There’s enough jumpy moments, gore and tension to satisfy film fans who can’t stomach what are often ungraceful overt political references and symbolism.

Despite the violence and the disturbing concept that forms the spine of the film and moments spent wincing at startling moments and extreme violence, I for one couldn’t help but leave the cinema feeling proud, impressed and hopeful. And I imagine I won’t be the only one who feels that way.

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