In sweltering New Orleans in the middle of summer, I sit in the corner of a soundstage which has been dressed for the forthcoming television series The Purge. The show is based on the iconic film franchise, and my surroundings are decorated with terrifying masks, including cut-outs of famous serial killers and a nun's face with the eyes gouged out. I can still see them all so vividly when I close my eyes. Amanda Warren isn’t bothered, though. In fact, she’s used to The Purge sets and all of the gore and violence that go with them.
The dimple-faced actress embraces me and sits across from me, her presence warm in all aspects in an otherwise eerie atmosphere—she’s even draped in a shawl to ward off the crisp air conditioning which flows through the room. Warren plays Jane on the upcoming series, a black woman who has clawed her way to the top in the finance world. The character’s spirit and determination drew The Leftovers alum to the role. "Jane is a young 32-year-old woman out of the Wharton School of Business—so Ivy League educated," Warren said. "She’s driven, passionate, good in the soul and self-made, which is not the easiest thing for a young woman in this day and age who is unapologetically black. We see the challenges that are presented because of who she is. We see the challenges and the conflicts with her mother, with her boss, David Ryker (William Baldwin) and with her subordinates. So there's a huge canvas to play with that."
Jane's frustrations with the glass ceiling in the finance world lead her down a dark path; one that gets her involved in the purge in a way that she never has before. After ten years of hiding during the purge (the series is set a decade after The First Purge), Jane is ready to up the stakes in a significant way. "We see what happens when a woman who has always stayed away from Purge Night, gets involved in a lawless state for 12 hours," Warren revealed. "We see the challenges and the choices that are being made by her merely being outside in the world, having to deal with an overnight overseas deal. You are a participant whether you are preying or being preyed upon; if you're out there, it is open season, and ten years into having this law that is not lost on her at all."
Amanda Warren as Jane in The Purge | USA Network
From the beginning, The Purge creator James DeMonaco and the series’ showrunner, Tom Kelly, were intent on presenting a narrative that was not solely a story with elements of horror and fear. Instead, they were determined to examine everything from race to gender and even class diversity. For the Roman J. Israel, Esq. actress, it meant that Jane's blackness was front and center. "It is vital," Warren said adamantly. "It's who I am, and nothing makes me prouder than being a black American woman. Nothing. Especially being a fifth to seventh generation American. My family has roots in this country. It's funny, though, with Tom's brilliant writing and the writers room that he's assembled with James on board, you see that we know who Jane is. This is not a result-oriented show; this is a great escape.
However, we are challenging audiences here in America and abroad to provoke some thought and some perspective within themselves. With Jane, you can do that. You literally see that she is a black American woman, but you also see that in the writing, in the language. It's subtle, but it's there. It's brilliant, beautiful writing without saying, 'Yeah, she's black. Let's shove that in all your faces.' "We woke up like this," she said pointing toward me, "So we know. To hear those things I think adds some nuance to what we're bringing to the television series, to TV and attaching our character to the franchise is really exciting."
Being able to step into Jane’s shoes and sit with her over the course of 10 episodes as she comes to grips with the choices and decisions that will forever shape the direction of her life has been an eye-opening opportunity for Warren. "It's hard out here in these streets," she reflected quietly. "I relate to her as a woman. I'm an actor who is ten years out of the Yale School of Drama; I was one of two black women in my graduating class, and I was one of the youngest to graduate in 2008. A lot of Jane’s struggle, because she is just entering the workforce, is very relatable to all people. We live in a workforce society where "playing by the rules" gauges your success and your range of opportunities. I don't think that will be lost on our audience. Everyone has to work to make a living in this country. But, I do think that, specifically for me as a black woman, I'm reminded that I'm never loved, and that speaks to a lot of truth and the reality of black women's ascension in America. I think this will remind a lot of black women, women of color and women, in general, that this story is not the end. The struggle continues. So, when presented with a night like this, what do you do to remedy that situation without causing harm? I think that's where Jane picks up because she's got a solid moral compass, and we see her struggle in that journey with the choices that she makes leading up to that night and then throughout the night."
It almost goes without saying that at this moment in the entertainment industry, black actors -- black women, in particular -- are being given opportunities that they have worked so hard for but have been out of reach for them the past. However, Hollywood still very much has a colorism issue. The casting of mix-race and light-skinned actresses continues to be a glaring issue. I asked Warren what her experience has been like on The Purge as a dark-skinned black woman and a series lead in a genre that has often used black people as punch lines or throwaway characters.
"It's been great," she whispered tearfully. "I find in getting this opportunity, being gifted this opportunity, isn't something that comes along for people who look like me every day. To be trusted by Tom and the team and the franchise, that's not lost on me. Then seeing people like Anthony Hemingway, whom I've tried to work with for almost half a decade now, to see him at the helm, setting the tone of the show; it's just very humbling. It assures me that certain people are trying to help us break this, to crack this glass ceiling, and it becomes really encouraging. I just try to take everything in stride; one moment at a time; breathe while I think. I'm here because of a lot of women — Niecey Nash, Angela Bassett, Regina Hall — stuck around so that people like me could be on here. Jenifer Lewis, all of those people."
"So that's not lost on me. It's an awesome opportunity. It's the same way that I felt when I was in a room with Denzel Washington, which I never thought would happen. Ever. A lot of us don't get to be strong girls without being the angry black woman. I've been fortunate to work in different roles that are not often typical in how black women are cast. I really, truly take the reins, but at the same time, when I'm in the story, I have to try to stay in the moment and work very hard not to put too much pressure on myself. So I do a lot of work at home so that I can play on the day, and we have a ball here. I think that Jane's going to be refreshing. A lot of people are gonna be hashtagging #BlackGirlsRock."
The Purge premieres September 4, 2018, at 10 p.m. on USA Network.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.