There’s a moment in Purge: Election Year where a small band of scantily clad schoolgirls are blown away by multiple pointblank blasts from a pump-action shotgun. You see, it’s the night of the annual Purge—the twelve-hour window where all crime is legal—and these nameless girls had hit the streets to get their slice of the pie. It was their civic duty as Americans. But they were laid to waste trying to live out the newly revised American Dream as defined by The Purge cinematic universe.
This vignette served as an applause break for the mostly-white audience watching Election Year at the Sherman Oaks Arclight on a Thursday night, and I couldn’t figure out why. The exaltations of whistles and FUCK YEAHs didn’t feel earned. We briefly met Schoolgirl #1 and Schoolgirl #2 (how they’re literally credited) when they show up to menace Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) and shoplift candy from his deli. Sure, they had made good on their threat of returning to the deli—this time during Purge hours, donning bloodied lingerie and wielding AK-47s and hacksaws while Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” eerily echoes out their car speakers—but hearing this white audience react to young girls of color getting dispatched by Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel), another woman of color, felt like a glorification of America’s racist, classist bloodlust The Purge franchise is purportedly satirizing and condemning.
It was the first time in my movie-going life that I felt disturbed by the proximity of such spectating. They weren’t cheering at a permutation of cathartic violence found in, say, Django Unchained, where Jamie Foxx walks into a plantation house to mow down the heinous slave owners who dehumanized and brutalized him and his wife. Violent cinematic comeuppances should feel like a payoff because a trust has been established between filmmaker and audience that a film’s self-contained Evil will be quashed by Good. Tarantino showed us painstakingly and painfully why these monstrous slavers deserved to die in such unsparing fashion in Django. He (and, by extension, us) know why they had to die and what their deaths mean in a greater context. James DeMonaco, director of the Purge franchise, lacks Tarantino’s consideration of character development and their motivations that his violence feels exploitative and irresponsible. It’s almost like DeMonaco hopes we get the point of Schoolgirl #1 and Schoolgirl #2 dying and what their deaths speak to in our culture. But judging from the reaction of the audience in the Sherman Oaks Arclight, that point was missed.
And now more than ever is not the time to be irresponsible and exploitative with simulated violence. Purge: Election Year arrives in theaters merely three weeks after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando—the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in America’s history. It was the deadliest attack on the LGBT community in America’s history. It was also targeted violence against Hispanic citizens. In the wake of tragedy, art should be healing. Art should be a sanctuary of solace. Art should be an adhesive that allows us to put the shards of a shattered world back together. And while I would never call for outright censorship or policing of art, nor do I expect—or want—all art to be edifying or Important, I do want there to be a greater sensitivity and sense of prudence from distributors of art who often put capital and commerce before the common good.
Universal, the studio behind Purge: Election Year, actually took the moral high road and pushed back press screenings out of respect for the victims in Orlando. That is practically unheard of. Except for after 9/11, I can’t remember another instance where a major studio exhibited such a level of decency that wasn’t ultimately self-rewarding. In an increasingly violent world where access to violent pop culture has been democratized at an unregulated rate, this sort of corporate trend can yield major positives for a society fraught with fear and desperate for empathy.
Ultimately I think this boils down to the age-old question of Audience: Who is consuming this and through what lens? In the right hands, the Purge franchise can exist as the schlocky B-budget political satire that has some perceptive things to say about race, class, and an unchecked political system designed to disenfranchise and oppress. In the wrong hands, it is punishment porn, an unintended “purge” for a certain audience so desensitized to debauched violence that they’re getting off to what feels like a normalization (and validation) of their fantasies.
This dilemma of audience reminds me of something similar that happened in the wake of another mass shooting back in 2012. After Adam Lanza took the lives of 20 school children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary, Jim Carrey refused to participate in press junkets and promotional campaigns for the ultra-violent Kick Ass 2. Even though he hadn’t had a proper hit in over four years and a poor performance at the box office would ultimately affect his points on the back end, Carrey—a staunch gun control proponent—felt it was irresponsible to sell a movie so rife with gun play and glamorized violence to an American citizenry that was still cloaked in mourning and bewilderment that the death of 20 six-year-olds couldn’t bring about sensible gun laws. Kick Ass co-creator Mark Millar missed the nuance and empathy of Carrey’s stance and scolded the actor for following his moral compass at the expense of movie marketing. Millar stated, “Our audience is smart enough to know they’re all pretending and we should instead just sit back and enjoy the serotonin release of seeing bad guys meeting bad ends as much as we enjoyed seeing the Death Star exploding.”
While that sounds nice in theory, in practice this logic is completely fucked. This is putting WAY too much faith in an audience whose makeup might include the kind of person who interprets the phrase “universal background check” as “they’re coming for my guns!” That audience might include the 60% of Republican voters who support Donald Trump’s anti-Islam, anti-immigrant vocabulary that is too reminiscent of the rhetoric of the government in The Purge. That audience might include Newt Gingrich, who thinks the masturbatory jingoism of London Has Fallen, where a white dude can blow up an entire country just to kill a handful of brown people, is what we should base our foreign policy on. That audience include might include any of the white American males who have caused more loss of life with guns than any foreign insurgent has.
Violence is woven into the American fabric. It’s our greatest export and it’s our favorite domestic pastime. There’s a reason why you can see a character get shot to death in a PG movie but a tasteful depiction of sex is an immediate PG-13. Violence is more palatable than sex in America! So if these death-dealing stories—satirical or not—are the ones America wants to keep telling about itself through pop culture, it’s high time for some serious self-interrogation. Causality between violent movies and violent behavior will continue to be debated and dissected. So in the mean time, let’s try the route that Universal took and the route that Jim Carrey took — even if it is merely a band-aid for a bullet wound.