From two of the film experts behind the excellent Shudder documentary Horror Noire—Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman, who wrote the book the doc is based on: Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present; and entertainment journalist Mark H. Harris—comes The Black Guy Dies First, a look at Black roles in horror cinema from 1968 to now. io9 is thrilled to share an excerpt today from the book, which was just released February 7.
The excerpt takes a close look at The Purge franchise, which offers an intriguing context for the authors to explore the book’s timely themes.
An American Tradition: The Purge Franchise
The 2010s were the Social Justice Decade, the most prominent era of sustained, widespread public protest since the 1960s. Movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Me Too, plus ongoing pushes for gun control, LGBTQ+ rights, environmentalism, and more brought prickly social issues into the spotlight, making watercooler conversations at work disproportionately awkward.
Until the middle of the decade, though, mainstream horror was relatively silent on such matters. Apart from an occasional feature like George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005), which revolved around the economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots—with racial implications inherent in Black zombie Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) leading a revolt against the elite survivors—twenty-first-century horror was content with trending from remakes and torture porn in the first decade to haunted house movies in the second.
The passing of the horror box office crown from the Saw franchise to the Paranormal Activity series and other similarly themed ghostly and demonic tales—Insidious (2010), Sinister (2012), The Woman in Black (2012), The Conjuring (2013), Mama (2013), Ouija (2014), Lights Out (2016), It (2017)—took scares out of the real world and ferried them into the supernatural. Perhaps this shift was a result of the American public’s need for escapist relief from increasingly volatile racial, political, class, and gender tensions. The end result was very suburban, and thus, by Hollywood logic, almost exclusively White. But one franchise bucked the trend: The Purge. Not only did these movies remain firmly planted in the earthly realm, but they chose to burrow deep into the seamy underbelly of America’s schisms for their inspiration, generating horror from true-life nightmares.
With The Strangers (2008) and You’re Next (2011) still fresh on our minds, The Purge (2013) seemed on the surface like just another home-invasion flick with masked intruders menacing a suburban family, but it added a couple of plot elements that made it atypical for this type of film. First, the reason for the invasion isn’t homicidal lunacy or familial squabbles; the intruders are hunting a person inside the house that the family is harboring, making it more of a siege tale like Attack on Precinct 13 (1976). Second, it’s set in a dystopian, yet still recognizable near-future in which one night a year is dedicated to “purging” one’s aggressive emotions without fear of punishment, because all crime (murder being especially preferred) is legal for a twelve-hour period.
This concept didn’t necessarily have to be a form of social critique; it could’ve been merely a way to ratchet up the fear and sense of desperation, since we know that the cops aren’t coming to save the day. But as you watched, you got the sense of an underlying social consciousness woven throughout writer- director James DeMonaco’s script. The man of the house, James (Ethan Hawke), recognizes the wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots and how the Purge exacerbates the disparity, telling his kids, “We can afford protection, so we’ll be fine.” Meanwhile, on TV, we hear a criminologist discussing whether the Purge is about releasing aggression or about removing the poorer, “non-contributing members of society,” thus unburdening the economy. Quite simply, the Purge is A Modest Proposal for the steroid era.
While race is never mentioned in the first movie, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the stranger (Edwin Hodge) the family is harboring is Black, while the family and all the lynch mob attackers are White. At the time, the non-explicit mentioning of race in the film mirrored the generally nonracial message of the Occupy movement’s protest against economic disparity, despite the glaring racial wealth gap between Blacks and Whites in America. You could interpret The Purge’s casting of a Black man as the lone “have-not” as a nod to this inequality, although the franchise would become much more pointed in its racial commentary as the series went on—and as racial schisms overtook class schisms at the forefront of the national news.
We also could see the film accurately foreshadow the rise of Trump’s America and the way in which extreme, reactive nationalism could lead the country into seemingly outrageous acts in the name of blind allegiance. In the world of The Purge, we see those of Trump’s ilk (elitists, money-grubbers, hyper-conservatives, Hitlers) establishing patriotism as religion in the prayer-like recitation “Blessed be the New Founding Fathers for letting us Purge and cleanse our souls. Blessed be America, a nation reborn.” The sense of a national rebirth and a return to past glory is certainly not far off base from Trump’s future campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.”
While The Purge is set entirely in an upscale gated community, the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy (2014), moves into the city, necessitating a shift in focus from the mostly White haves to the mostly non-White have-nots, who lack suburban fortresses for protection. While the first film’s primary Black character was an unnamed “stranger” who remained an undeveloped prop to further the plot, in Anarchy, an Afro-Latinx family, the Sanchezes, is established as central to the story, signaling a more overt racial connotation.
That awareness is reinforced by the appearance of Black Panther–like militant Carmelo Johns (Michael K. Williams), whose video broadcasts reassert the implications offered up in the first movie that the Purge is meant to be class genocide. The story goes all-in on the sort of power-hungry, prejudicial classists that would come to define Trump’s regime. Grotesque upper-crust caricatures clad in tweed jackets, polo boots, khakis, and inbreeding, these wannabe big-game hunters don’t venture into the dangerous fray of the city; they pay Black urban youth to round up victims so they can hunt them in the safety of a ware- house setting with an array of weaponry on hand and an audience to cheer them on. It’s an embodiment of not only U.S. gun fetishism, but also the dehumanization of the poor by the rich and the government policies that enable them. Is it any wonder why the tagline is “An American Tradition”?
By the time The Purge: Election Year was released in 2016, Donald Trump was the presumptive Republican nominee for president, and movie posters boldly and directly played up the parallels between his rhetoric and that of the franchise’s villainous political party, the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), by using the tagline “Keep America Great.” (Trump would later adopt this as his re-election slogan, Trumpily oblivious to its previous use here.) No doubt reflecting the racist rhetoric surrounding Trump’s campaign (and his tweets, and his family dinners, and his bedtime prayers), Election Year made more evident what was hinted at previously, showing the NFFA employing outright white nationalists to do their bidding—in this instance, attempting to assassinate a liberal presidential candidate, Senator Charlene “Charlie” Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who vows to outlaw the Purge.
When the assassination attempt leaves Senator Roan and her bodyguard Leo (Frank Grillo) to fend for themselves on the streets of Washington, D.C., several Black citizens—played by Mykelti Williamson, Betty Gabriel, and Edwin Hodge (returning from the first film), the latter of whom leads an underground Purge resistance group—help them survive the night. Black characters are thus thrust into actively heroic positions this time around—granted, that involves not one, but TWO Sacrificial Negroes, one of whom literally jumps in front of Roan to take a bullet. In another moment of life imitating art, the movie ends with a news report announcing that Roan has defeated the NFFA candidate but that hard-line NFFA supporters refuse to accept the election results and react violently, “burning cars, breaking windows, looting, attacking police officers . . .”
Wokeness, it seems, is subjective depending on the audience, and the reaction to the Purge films has underscored perhaps the most prevalent White privilege: obliviousness. While Black and Brown audiences have picked up on the intended social, political, and racial messages, White viewers conveniently have glossed over them. Per DeMonaco, “The people who respond most to the Purge films are the African American audience and the Latino audience. They were the people who saw the films for what I’d always meant them to be . . . which is this statement about the government’s treatment of the poor, about gun laws in America. There are other audiences that don’t see it.” It should be no surprise, then, that for the next movie, he’d go full-on dashiki and afro: “For the fourth film, it seemed natural to go to the audience that was understanding of the film the most.”
The First Purge (2018), a prequel, seemed dead set on avoiding any misinterpretation of the franchise’s meaning, taking the series to its most radical heights, like an explosion of the collective id of America’s racial minorities, a grassroots fever dream of the pent-up emotions of the underserved and over-policed. It’s an unabashed statement against systemic racism that shows what the previous films implied: whether American issues are masked as class, political, or economic, at the core, they’re intrinsically tied to race.
Excerpt from The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema From Fodder to Oscar by Robin R. Means Coleman, PhD and Mark H. Harris reprinted by permission of Gallery / Saga Press.
The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema From Fodder to Oscar is now available; you can order a copy here.
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