by Billie Walker
"Extreme dystopia makes the inequalities of prior regimes and a promise of less violence seem utopian"
In homage to the US inauguration, me and my housemate settled in for a marathon of Purge films. I figured as I’d never seen them, better to purge than draw out the experience. So we gorged and this is my cleansing.
I had for so long avoided the franchise because I had already filed them in the torture porn genre with a light smattering of political relevance. Like if 'Saw' attempted a critique of Bush in between amputating limbs. The purge as a metaphor for the violent inequality in the US and it's politics, holds up for the most part for all three films. However - much like the American Dream by the time it comes to Biden’s inauguration - the metaphor and US politics are starting to unravel.
Purging Middle Class Guilt
We are first brought into 'The Purge' six years into the ritual where for one night a year everything is legal, even murder. It's easy to see why I dismissed it as torture porn. But this is actually the beginning of a clever franchise and the first film is a great portrait of the middle class domestic told through a rivetingly unique home invasion.
Reminiscent of the Obama presidency, there is hope, or at least for the middle-class families. The ones who can afford hope by buying into the New Founding Father’s values of the purge, seeing it as a necessary evil. They batten down the hatches and wait for the night to pass. But it is a sacrifice they don’t envision themselves ever having to make. They are safe. Until a houseless, hunted and wounded black man is let into their house and the reality of what the purge is hits them.
The nuclear family are forced to address the disparity in society and the unfairness of the system. There is an encroaching violence that paces the parameters of their middle-class life, a great danger brewing under the surface of what appears to be a system in total working order (for some).
'The Purge: Anarchy' unfolds the analogy further. Rather than focusing on one family for the night, we see how the annual purge affects more people from poorer neighbourhoods. We received a vague idea from the first film of its inequality, but this sets in stone the deep levels of corruption and elitism in the solution. It is racist, classist and run by rich white men.
The film ends with an army of black men coming to the rescue of the hunted working class we have followed to their pretty certain deaths. This sequel offers real hope: are we heading for a black militia that rescues the United States of America from its decaying “democracy”?
Purging the Orange Man
I was left hoping that Michael K. Williams would return in the third film as the leader of the revolution. Sadly by 'The Purge: Election Year', Williams is nowhere to be seen and the militia that should feature as main characters are relegated to the back-up posse that do the work for the white senator and her bodyguard. And this is where the metaphor runs dry.
The pill is bitter and tough to swallow as it is too true to the current situation. Yes, there is a sigh of relief to be breathed as a fascist is removed from office but the removal of an explicit violence, of the annual purge or the orange ex-president, hasn’t solved anything.
Extreme dystopia makes the inequalities of prior regimes and a promise of less violence seem utopian. Instead of offering more, the world is left watching progressives do the bare minimum. Like the female senator running for President who’s protected by a black man for this film’s entirety, blackness is once again being used to give white people the woke seal of approval. We watch as an old friend smiles through her grief at the thought of her friend who sacrificed his life for a white woman in office, and the promising dawn on the horizon.
There is a promise of change, or delusion of change which is in fact a return to the neoliberal disaster that came before. Watching this on inauguration night and any time in the next four years will probably give this third instalment more weight and relevance than it offers alone. As much as the mirror it holds is effective, I wanted more than a metaphor. Film has the opportunity to create worlds, explore options and yet we are often only given an allegory of the simulation that it is already running. I want the cheat code.
The inauguration is over and the end of violence has been meekly promised. 'The Forever Purge' (delayed due to COVID), is set to be released this year with rumours circulating that the story will evolve into a civil war. I am certain that it will be accurate political commentary that feels horrifyingly similar to the scenes that unfolded on Capitol Hill on January 6th.
What I hope it will do, but have little faith in it to, is offer more than the allegory we have already received. I want them to offer what we get from a Jordan Peele film: after the horror there is some real hope, some genuine escape and rescue scenario. Because we don’t just need to criticise the political climate, we need inspiration to find our way out of it. Otherwise we are doomed to a world of artistic political commentary and deep cynicism offering only a grim reflection, like the neoliberal democratic states they are designed to critique.
Billie Walker is a London-based writer who enjoys Campari-based drinks as bitter as she is. There will always be a horror film on her laptop and feta in the fridge. She devours books as frequently as salty cheeses. See more of her work