I had an ill feeling in my stomach when I watched The First Purge. The film replicated some of the worst instances of violence in recent US history, including its own church massacre, men in police uniforms killing black people, Ku Klux Klan hood-wearing Nazis attacking a vulnerable group of ethnic minorities, and even some Third Reich-inspired militia decimating a housing project room by room.
It’s a tough watch, demonstrating that people of color in America only have to look to their own experiences to find horror movie tropes, but there was something else stuck in my head after I left the movie theater — and that was the way guns were depicted in the film.
Obviously, I knew going in this movie would be full of them. I’d seen the previous three movies and knew the premise: one day a year, Americans are free to commit all and any crimes, including murder. Of course guns would factor heavily. And you would think at this point, I would be rather desensitized to seeing heavy firearm use in movies. To a certain extent I am, but in The First Purge I couldn’t help but think how much director Gerard McMurray glamorized them.
There’s a scene where Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel) and his crew decide to fight back and defend their community, so they open up a walk-in wardrobe full of weapons. Each firearm was shot like a car in the Fast and the Furious franchise, a sort of cool, sleek and decadent tool that enhanced the rugged masculinity of those who wielded them.
Later, when the KKK is assaulting a group of injured Staten Island residents, Dmitri and the team roll up through smoke and take the racist killers down in heavy gunfire and violence. You can’t help but cheer at that moment and clearly, these heroic use of weapons made an impression on its audience.
“I want a supercut of every time someone cocks a gun in THE FIRST PURGE,” one guy tweeted. Another woman posted: “So... just watched The First Purge. Now I’m ready to sign up for all the gun/fighting classes I can find.”
McMurray says these scenes were meant to be cathartic. “People fight back and show resistance, and it’s hopeful,” he told IndieWire. “But also, it’s fun, because who doesn’t want to see someone oppressive or hateful taken down?”
The First Purge does succeed in that sense, but it also offers up a troubling double standard. On one hand, it links the NRA to the New Founding Fathers of America, the political party that rose to power and instigated the “experiment” in the first place, but then spends much of the movie fetishizing guns and the violence it causes. And in a narrative that has its heroes bearing arms to fight back and survive, it only serves to reinforce the NRA’s stance that citizens should protect themselves. That they should be able to exert their second amendment rights in order to fight oppression. What’s more oppressive than a corrupt government run by the likes of the NFFA?
The First Purge isn’t the first film to fetishize guns. Just last year John Wick: Chapter 2 featured Peter Serafinowicz as the Sommelier, an arms and ammunition expert who sold and suggested guns like he was recommending a fine wine.
Hollywood has depicted weapons since the dawn of cinema. How could it not when it is a reflection of a society that allows for them to be owned by practically every one of its citizens? Westerns, war movies, spy movies, thrillers, comedies, even romances can count a movie or two that has included a gun as part of its narrative — though it seems like they are becoming far more prevalent in the cinematic landscape.
A study last year found that the amount of gun violence in PG-13 movies has steadily increased since 1985. Researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center analyzed the top 30 movies from 1985 to 2015 and found that there continue to be more sequences with guns than ever before. It’s not just in the movies, but how they are marketed too.
AL.com looked at film posters from the last three years and saw a steady increase in the amount that featured guns. In 2016, the news outlet found 25 posters featuring guns, 41 in 2017 and 44 posters in 2018. The irony is that Hollywood is filled with voices urging not just for tougher gun laws but them to be banned too. Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Ethan Hawke, and Charlize Theron are a drop in the water when it comes to Tinseltown celebrities against guns but all have appeared in several movies where firearms are continuously wield to dangerous effect.
Often the response by stars, when questioned about their personal views on guns and professional work that features, is “it’s just a movie” but to me, that’s a cop-out. Pop culture is a massive influence on society’s attitudes and ways of thinking. That’s why there is so much concern with the way women are continually presented through the male gaze, how rape is used far too much as a plot device and why there needs to be better representation for people of all backgrounds, not just cis, white, able-bodied people.
Studies since the 1960s have found that guns can induce aggressive behaviors, what they call “the weapons effect.” Psychologist Brad Bushman is one of these researchers who found that children are more likely to pick up a gun in a pile of toys from watching a film with guns in them, compared to children who viewed a version of the same film without them.
There are of course studies that disagree with this assessment, arguing that violent media doesn’t impact violent behavior, and to an extent, I agree. I’ve watched hundreds of American movies depicting gun violence but haven’t mimicked what I’ve seen, but I don’t live in a country where guns are available. Neither do cinema-goers in Australia, Japan, and Norway, where guns are banned too and are watching the same US movies.
America has over 350 million guns in circulation with an increasing number of gun deaths each year. There have been over 150 school shootings this year so far. Clearly, the country has a continuing problem with gun violence, and as more and more movies like The First Purge and John Wick: Chapter 2 fetishize guns one can expect the culture around them to proliferate.
This is not to say guns should be banned from movies, but maybe filmmakers should take more care to show them in a less appealing light. To spend more time on the painful consequences of firing a weapon rather than just skimming over it. "People don't scream in pain for hours, and we don't see the reaction of their families dealing with the aftermath of it and all these are things that are real about violence," Douglas A. Gentile, professor of psychology at Iowa State University, told CNN while comparing US media to Japanese, which often depicts far more time on the victim’s suffering.
"You start feeling sympathy for the victim,” Gentile added. “And you become less likely to be aggressive because you start seeing just how horrible it really is.”
There is no escaping guns in movies, but in the same way Hollywood has made progressive steps in the way it depicts female characters, sexual violence and more diverse stories, then surely it can put that same energy into the way it depicts firearms.
Guns are tools of death that are too readily available in America. Movies shouldn’t be commercials for them.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.