‘The Purge: Election Year’ Provides a Depressingly Familiar Portrait of Race in America


After watching The Purge a few years ago, I was left with a sense of dissatisfaction. Sure, I was enraptured after being thrust into an intense, visual game of “What Would You Do?” I seriously considered how I would keep myself safe if I lived in an America where all crime, including murder, was legal for 12 hours. Where would I go? What, if any, security measures would I be able to afford? What would my strategy be if I suddenly found myself under attack, or worse, stranded outside in the chaos?

The premise of The Purge series — that America is “reformed” and has almost eliminated crime and unemployment with the advent of the annual, 12-hour “purge,” during which anything goes — is a brilliant concept for a thriller based on a dangerous social experiment, although that concept that was not sufficiently developed in the first film. Instead of looking at the widely felt consequences of an event like The Purge, the 2013 release only focused on the unfortunate luck of one family’s home on Purge Night, with only offhand references to what was happening elsewhere. However, the two follow-up movies dove into these details, helping the series thoroughly avoid the curse of the crappy sequel.

In 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy, viewers were taken into the streets to watch as a group of strangers from different racial and class backgrounds band together in an attempt to survive the night. The narrative examines the manifestations of racism and classism on a night where vulnerability is more life-threatening than ever. Not unlike in today’s America, poor people are disproportionately affected because of a lack of resources or protection. In fact, they are specifically targeted and essentially exterminated in order to reduce crime, and cut down government spending on welfare services. In response to these conditions, a growing anti-Purge movement has spawned the creation of an armed militia that protects at-risk communities and disrupts premeditated Purge events. It’s a nerve wracking portrayal of inequality taken to the extreme.

The next release, The Purge: Election Year, hits theaters tomorrow and builds on this social conflict as its central plot line. In the film, presumptively liberal U.S. Senator Charlene Roan survived the Purge some 15 years earlier after watching her entire family be killed, and is currently running a presidential campaign whose main platform is ending the yearly Purge tradition. Her opponent, Minister Edwidge Owens, is in cahoots with the New Founding Fathers, the elected officials who implemented the Purge, insisting that it purifies the souls of Americans and allows them to live in peace and prosperity for the rest of the year.

This council of powerful, rich, white men is invested in maintaining the tradition as a means to continue benefitting financially from the destruction it brings. Two polar opposite presidential candidates, one of them a woman, competing for the White House… yes, the film conveniently mirrors our current political situation. But while us non-maniacal killer Americans (the likes of the Orlando gunman and Lonnie “The Grim Sleeper” Franklin not included) are having nuanced conversations about the institutional effects of racial and class oppression in tandem with our upcoming election, “Election Year” relies on tired tropes about racism that closer resemble Birth of a Nation representations than contemporary America.

Militant government assassins sent to capture Senator Roan are suited up in combat uniforms that read “White Power” and bear swastika patches. The minions also sport Confederate flag tattoos that clarify, in case you miss it, that they’re racist. Subtlety is not a priority in this flick. In addition to white supremacist snipers, racial humor is obtrusively inserted in lieu of valuable social dialogue. I found it particularly ironic that a movie based on the severe conflict between first and second class citizens still found it appropriate to use a black guy as the sole source of comedic relief. With a series of one-liners in the tradition of Chris Tucker’s infamous “Never touch a black man’s radio!”, local deli owner Joe Dixon provides racial anecdotes that do little more than miseducate and tickle white audiences. The tactic is played out and its awkwardness is exacerbated by what I can only guess to be an attempt at political correctness gone wrong when Dixon uses the word “negro” whenever the actual n-word should be placed instead.

Dixon and the other supporting characters of color end up trying to escape government goons and avoid elaborately masked purgers (a staple of the series), to keep Roan alive. This makes Election Year yet another feature where characters of color gain their humanity and legitimacy only through their allegiance to protect and save a white character, in this case Senator Roan. She is a blonde savior dressed in white who needs saving because her moral superiority is the only force strong enough to end the Purge. The final installment of this series supports a pacifist position that begs oppressed groups to keep faith in a political system that has never served them and to resist violence under savage circumstances. By reaffirming that only white people hold the power to change laws and instill integrity, The Purge: Election Year misses the point of today’s racial justice movements by miles.