Is The Purge: Anarchy Liberal or Conservative?
by Sean Bottai
THIS MONTH WE’LL BE THINKING THROUGH SOME OF 2014’S BEST AND/OR MOST SUCCESSFUL HORROR FILMS. WE’LL TRY TO SPOT CONNECTIONS, TENSIONS AND LARGER THEMES, AS WELL AS FIGURE OUT WHY SOME FILMS SUCCEED AND SOME FAIL AT ACHIEVING THEIR GOALS. MOVIES WILL BE DISCUSSED IN TOTAL, SO BEWARE OF SPOILERS.
If Saw and Hostel were horror franchises for the Abu Ghraib era, than the Purge films are totally post-Occupy Wall Street. What are they trying to say about the contemporary socioeconomic moment? And about how the prism of race refracts that moment back at us? It’s clear that the first Purge movie is geared towards suburbanites and middle class strivers who see their own fears of home invasion and class warfare reflected in Ethan Hawke’s startled expression. The first film is also a lynching story, in which the affluent white bystander family gets unwillingly sucked into the crisis of a black man trying to outwit the white mob that wants to kill him.
The class and racial politics of The Purge: Anarchy are much more nebulous. The film’s marketing takes the rioting urban street toughs who litter the film’s background and places them squarely in the foreground. When called to put a face to its own horrors, the movie posters offer up these (black and Latino) young men in their dia de los muertos makeup and expressionless white masks. In doing so, the movie seems to cash in on the treble of existential dread heard in conservative reactions to Obama’s 2012 reelection: “This is not my America anymore.” So, is The Purge: Anarchy a reflection of the paranoid imaginations of anti-assimilationist whites?
Note the movie’s inclusion of the young white couple, Shane (Zach Gilford, Friday Night Lights’ All-American quarterback) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez, Lost’s loathed Nikki – an actress of Puerto Rican descent who, by virtue of class status and skin tone, reads as white in the racial imagination of the movie). They exist only to be destroyed by the multicultural warzone they find themselves stranded in. An early scene plays like an SNL parody of white anxieties about the ‘Otherness’ of black people: Liz and Shane see dark-skinned kids on skateboards, in their masks and face paint, and it is played like a moment of absolute, ground-shattering terror. Ominous music booms over the score. These are the hoodlums, Liz and Shane realize, and they might get us. One gets the feeling that if this couple watched the video for Lupe Fiasco’s “Kick, Push,” they wouldn’t sleep for a week.
Yet the ‘real’ villains of The Purge: Anarchy are drawn from liberal and progressive nightmares, like the morally depraved 1%-ers who hunt hapless victims while wearing tuxedos and ball gowns. Struggling waitress and single mother Eva (Carmen Ejogo, who, in a beautiful coincidence, plays Coretta Scott King in the upcoming Selma) loses her father, Papa Rico, when sells his life to them for $100,000. “Why would Papa do that?” her daughter Cali (Zoë Soul) asks. “I don’t understand.” But the audience does, and we’re asked to see Cali as hopelessly naive. The other ethnic kids in the movie are much less sheltered. They’re not murderers and rapists, it turns out, but mere participants in the Purge’s economy of violence: they earn a profit by capturing and selling victims to the 1%-ers. Whether this is intended to be an indictment or a recognition of how young men might be trapped in the ghetto by larger socioeconomic forces is unclear. Eva is stopped on the street early in the movie by a black man looking to sell her weaponry for the Purge. “A knife to cut your man’s throat with?” he suggests. Lower/working-class blacks use the Purge not as an opportunity to rape and murder (that’s the province white and Latino men in the movie), but to get some economic power back.
While The Purge: Anarchy seems to suggest that urban black communities participate in their own exploitation, it then introduces Carmelo, a Malcolm X-esque black revolutionary played by Michael K. Williams (The Wire’s iconic Omar Little), as a counterbalance. “Fuck you, fuck your money and motherfuck the Purge,” he bellows at the 1%-ers as his revolutionaries storm the compound. These images of a radicalized lower class, multi-ethnic resistance are provocative, especially in the context of Ferguson and the ongoing unrest surrounding the targeting of young black men by the police. Fruitvale Station would make a compelling double-bill with The Purge: Anarchy, though the latter movie is pretty glib about black radicalism. “We worship at the altar of Smith and Wesson,” Carmelo laments in one of his online sermons, yet The Purge: Anarchy generates almost all of its ‘entertainment’ through gun violence, including the sequence where Carmelo’s army liberates our protagonists from the 1%-ers. Carmelo’s proclamation – “Fuck the Purge!” – seems to only exist as a meme-able moment, á la Samuel L. Jackson’s “I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane” rant from 2006. The image of the black revolutionary is contained and delimited, rendered as a punchline.
Still, it’s a sign of the times that the 1%’s custom of trafficking in human misery is a powerful source of horror in The Purge: Anarchy. ‘Oh right,’ the movie realizes, in a kind of course-correct, ‘These people are what’s wrong with this country.’ So we’re nauseated by how their economic power is pitted mercilessly against Papa Rico’s desire to better the circumstances of his daughter and granddaughter. His ‘sacrifice’ is rendered as saintly, a byproduct of a racist white system. In a movie full of malevolent or ‘fallen’ father figures, Papa Rico stands out as a patriarch who possesses warmth and humanity. “I’m sorry I’m so grumpy,” he tells his daughter and granddaughter. “Forgive me.” Frank Grillo’s Leo, on the other hand, shows no vulnerability. When his concerned ex-wife pleads with him not to participate in the Purge, he tells her bitterly, “Go back to your new family.” Leo will be Papa Rico’s avenging angel later in the movie, when he murders dozens of 1%-ers in order to defend the group of stragglers he’s been saddled with.
‘Is Dad evil or heroic?,’ the movie keeps asking. On the one hand there are the paramilitary white torture mobs led by the butcher’s-apron-and-trucker-hat-wearing Big Daddy, whose very name arises from some awareness of the problems with patriarchal archetypes. Talk radio pundits in the movie argue over the morality of the Purge, whose existence is blamed on “the New Founding Fathers” who, according to one, “took advantage of the nation’s fear.” But then there’s Leo, who exists to steal the movie away from Eva and Cali and reorient our fantasies elsewhere. How much more provocative and interesting would The Purge: Anarchy be if it committed to its own early impulse to make Eva the central character, rather than a mere symbol by which Leo is redeemed? If Eva were granted real subjectivity, what would that do to some of the movie’s highly politicized, racially-charged images – two black women being dragged screaming down the street by men in riot gear, for example? Why are those images in the movie at all? So that the movie’s libertarian hero, Leo, can prove his progressive bona fides by protecting them? To remind us why we need strong, violent men who also want to be fathers/fatherly?
Like The Babadook, working class single motherhood provides the central hub around which everything else rotates. The Purge: Anarchy, however, doesn’t have the imagination to wonder what it’s actually like to be Eva. All it can do is dramatize her plight as a series of potential rapists which only the white hero can save her from.