How Katrina, Charlottesville, and Sean Spicer inspired The First Purge
When director Gerard McMurray set out to make the science-fiction/horror prequel The First Purge (out July 4), he hoped to end up with a scary action film that would entertain cinemagoers. “Audiences want to have a good time and still be in the world of the Purge, and have fun and it not be a dreary thing,” he says. But the African-American filmmaker had another objective too. “I said, ‘This could be a chance for me [to ask], what would the Purge look like from the perspective of a black man?’” he recalls.
It’s a question McMurray investigates thoroughly in this fourth entry in the franchise, a series detailing the violent, homicidal carnage which might ensue if crime were legalized one night a year. The filmmaker’s prequel concerns the initial, experimental version of the Purge, which takes place on Staten Island. Viewers discover that the idea for a 12-hour period of lawlessness is the brainchild of a scientist (Marisa Tomei) who believes society would be improved if citizens were periodically able to “purge” themselves of their anger. Tomei’s character is well-meaning, but the plan is hijacked by America’s ruling party, the New Founding Fathers of America, who use the Purge as a means to thin out the local working- and lower-class population — namely, black and brown people.
“They allow the Staten Island citizens to vote on the Purge,” says James DeMonaco, who wrote all the Purge movies and directed the previous three. “They vote yes because if you participate, and you stay on the island during the Purge, you will receive a $5,000 stipend. So mostly poor people stay, and rich people leave, and the government has its own agenda.”
Staten Islanders under threat in The First Purge include a crime lord (Y’Lan Noel), a community activist (Lex Scott Davis), her younger brother (Joivan Wade), and the psychopathic Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), a character the horror-loving McMurray partly based on Freddy Krueger. Meanwhile, the NFFA is represented in the film by Patch Darragh’s chief of staff character, Arlo Sabian, a government official whose resemblance to Sean Spicer is more than passing and not at all coincidental. “He was definitely an inspiration,” McMurray says with a laugh.
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In the film, Sabian essentially succeeds in orchestrating a race war, with the local residents facing off against NFFA-paid ex-soldiers. Some of these mercenaries wear uniforms resembling those of Third Reich soldiers, while we also see characters dressed in the hooded garb of the Klu Klux Klan. That’s potent material for a horror movie in the summer blockbuster season, and doubly so at a time when the Trump administration’s handling of many racially charged issues has been widely criticized.
“I’m not afraid to deal with race and race issues,” McMurray says. “That’s just who I am as a person, and I don’t run from it, so I wanted to push that. It wasn’t heavy-handed. It was more like, we’re making this movie, and we’re saying something on a different level, and if people pick it up, it’s great.”
The Purge series has always made clear that a night which ultimately benefits the rich by harming the poor would feature a racial, and racist, dimension. In 2013’s The Purge, a young unnamed black man played by Edwin Hodge triggers the main plot when he hides in a house from a group of white Purgers. In 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy, Michael K. Williams’ Carmelo Jones leads an anti-Purge resistance group, while in 2016’s The Purge: Election Year, Hodge’s character, whom we discover is called Dante Bishop, plots to assassinate a pro-Purge presidential candidate played by Kyle Secor.
“Over the years, we kept trying to go further with the idea of race, race wars in America, race in America, class war,” says DeMonaco. “Each one, we were pushing the envelope a little more. By [The First Purge] we thought, ‘Let’s go all-in here.’”
That decision was reinforced by the hiring of McMurray. The First Purge director attended USC film school, where he became friends with Ryan Coogler, and he later served as associate producer on the Black Panther director’s 2013 debut film, Fruitvale Station. “We met the first day of film school,” says McMurray. “I was producing a lot of his shorts, he was shooting a lot of my shorts. When Fruitvale came about he said, ‘G, come and help me make my movie,’ and I was down.”
McMurray was recruited by the Purge series producers after his own debut film, Burning Sands, a drama about a fraternity at a historically black college, played Sundance in 2017.
“Gerard saw the Purge movies as a metaphor for black plight in America, or the black experience in America,” says DeMonaco. “I’m an Italian kid from Brooklyn and Staten Island. I can’t speak to [that]. You know, the first draft, I think it was more mixed, to be quite honest with you. The neighborhood was Puerto Rican, it was black. He informed the [depiction] of the African-American experience [in the film] more than my initial draft.”
McMurray was born and raised in New Orleans, and his wariness with regard to the government in part stems from the handling by the George W. Bush administration of the disaster zone his city became in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “I was there,” he says. “My whole family was there. I had people down there in New Orleans, stuck when the levees broke, and we couldn’t get them out of the city. My brother. My nieces and nephews. That was an inspiration [for The First Purge]. There’s a line in the film which is, ‘No one’s coming to save us.’ I’m not a government-basher, but that’s one of the things that happened.”
The director’s depiction of a race war was also partly inspired by the clashes that took place between white supremacists and protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August, while McMurray was shooting the movie.
“I said, ‘I have to really put this in the film,’” he recalls. “Because for me, any type of horror is like real-life stuff. Not ghosts, not supernatural stuff. That’s horror for me — Charlottesville people. The KKK. I wanted to use that. I used it as a shot of inspiration, just like the Sean Spicer thing.”
Despite all this, McMurray insists that he has succeeded in his mission to make a fun film — or at least that is the word from preview audiences. “People really were into it,” he says. “They definitely thought it was political, they thought it was scary in some instances, but most importantly they thought it was fun, they had a good time.”
McMurray doesn’t know if he will return to make a fifth Purge movie, should there be one. “That’s not my call,” he says. “I’m just happy making this movie.” But he agrees that, in these turbulent times, it is disconcerting to think about what could happen in the next few months that might inspire or influence another entry in the series.
“I know!” he says with a laugh. “That scares me!”