Box Office Democracy: “The Purge: Election Year”

I firmly believe that all media is political, that you cannot separate the political component from a cultural artifact anymore than you could strip out narrative or theme. I usually try to only be at about a six out of 10 in terms of political content when writing these reviews because I worry that I might come off as too singularly focused and, if I’m being completely honest, because I’m concerned that my analysis is not nearly sophisticated enough to be my leading edge. I’m throwing that out of the window for The Purge: Election Year partly because it is such an aggressive political piece and partially because other than the political content it isn’t offering much beyond the established Purge formula. If you’re the kind of person who desires no politics in their media criticism I can tell you that The Purge: Election Year is very similar in tone and pace to The Purge: Anarchy and while it has a lot of additional world building it isn’t moving heaven and earth to get there. If you want a fun thriller with a complex if not entirely unpredictable narrative, this is a good choice. I also urge you to stop reading here because from here on out I intend to only engage with the political content.

My main critique of the first Purge movie was that it gestured to some bigger political issues, but was really nothing more than a monster in a house movie. The daughter character is there to raise questions about the fairness of the Purge, but every other character tells her to keep it to herself. At this point it seems they’ve heard this critique and Election Year is much more comfortable engaging in politics and having a clearer point of view on contemporary issues. The ruling party, The New Founding Fathers of America, is a right wing party that has wrapped itself in religion and firmly believes that there is no point in trying to create income equality and is trying to murder the poor. They also hire an army of Neo-Nazis decked out in patches of the Confederate flag and white power slogans to murder their political enemies. I’m sure when they were writing this, it seemed a little more dystopian and far-fetched than it does on a weekend when a major party political candidate posted an image from a Neo-Nazi web forum on his official Twitter account. It’s no coincidence that the last round of advertising I saw for this film features the slogan “Keep America Great”, and it’s nice to see this series engaging with issues instead of pushing it aside for the sake of simpler thrills.

While I appreciate the willingness to go to a more political place, I picked up on some attempts to draw equivalencies between both sides of the issue of purging and I’m not entirely sure that’s appropriate. I want nuanced and complicated characters on both sides of the equation, but I also want it underlined that the people fighting to stop the night of unregulated murder that disproportionately targets their community are much more morally right than their opponents… and I’m not sure the movie always agrees with me there. There is a resistance group, introduced in the last film, composed of almost exclusively people of color that run a hospital on Purge night but that also want to engage in a political assassination to influence the election. I thought the movie made it seem like this assassination attempt was just as evil as the attempt of the ruling party to assassinate the candidate opposed to the purge, and I don’t think there is a moral equivalency here. Trying to stop the Purge is a cousin of self-defense, and while it isn’t a lofty political ideal to kill your opponents I understand why they thought that was their only option. It’s worth noting at this point that my fiancée, a scholar with extensive training in media and representation, does not think that they were saying both groups were similarly bad.

There’s one more unsettling bit in here (as long as we’re drawing parallels to modern politics from a movie made by a studio famous for caring only about keeping costs down and making as many movies as they can). There’s a B story about a deli and the owner trying to protect it on Purge night when his insurance is cancelled at the last minute and the crazy aggressive local girl who is nursing a grudge over a shoplifting incident. I very much want the intent behind this plot to be about how marginalized communities are often turned against each other to fight over scraps instead of fighting against the systems that serve to oppress them. However, the much easier parallel to draw from that is one about “black-on-black violence” and if that’s legitimizing that nonsense to their audience then there’s some actual evil going on here.

I appreciate that with The Purge: Election Year, the franchise is starting to engage with the social issues at the root of their premise. All good science fiction should aspire to engage with contemporary issues and hold a mirror up to the places that could be doing better. At its best moments Election Year is doing a great job at that, and in other places it feels like it is trying to hard to please everyone to have a strong enough perspective on some things. I’m thrilled that there’s the space to have these observations and actual conversations about a Purge movie and I’m excited to see where (if?) things go from here, an enthusiasm I did not have the first time around.