September 15, 2011
On Saturday nights in 1993, the TNT television channel played science fiction movies back to back beginning at midnight. They called this the TNT “Monster Movie Marathon.” As my parents had recently divorced, my sister and I now spent weekends at my father’s house and the Saturday night Monster Movie Marathon quickly became our tradition. We made our bed on the living room floor and taped each movie on the VCR. Them! was a favorite, as was The Day the Earth Stood Still. The Thing, both the 1951 version and John Carpenter’s became beloved, as did The Day of the Triffids and Cronenberg’s The Fly. When I think of great science fiction now, these are a few of the films that come immediately to mind. When my five future children watch sci-fi movies I wonder if my list of favorites will be on their’s. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t but one thing I know is this: they will love Attack the Block with the fervor of their dear mama.
In Joe Cornish’s directorial debut, ruffian teens from a South London council estate (the projects), find their Bonfire Night thievery interrupted by an alien invasion. Lead by boss boy Moses (John Boyega), the boys: Jerome, Pest, Dennis, and Biggz, use their wily and hilarious teenage ways to escape the bad guys (aliens, police, a murderous rapping drug dealer) and defend their home.
Block is a tight, fast, movie, whose pieces (sound, photography, acting, editing, production design, dialogue) fit together in perfect harmony. Energy is palpable in all aspects of production.
Passion is infectious, and after seeing Block, so great was my enthusiasm, that my body, confused by this unusual excitement, grew alarmed and immediately flushed water out my armpits in great rivers.
â€œIs it hot in here bruv?” I said to the friend beside me.
â€œNah blood, it ain’t,â€ he said. And at that moment I knew. I knew that any movie able to stimulate my glands to such a degree was a fine film indeed.
I luff Attack the Block bruv. Trust.
There are two main reasons behind my adoration. The first is the larger and contains the other: Block is a movie that very happily belongs to our current age, and this feels friendly.
In the future when people watch the film, they will understand it as a movie of the 2010s the way we understand L’Eclisse or the Graduate as films of the 1960s. The boys in Block are deep in today’s popular culture: Ninety percent of their speech is South London slang. They have smart phones (used in one scene to light and/or take pictures of the alien). They text, and make references to ebay, American Idol, Naruto, and playing FIFA. Some scenes are even entirely dependent on the fairly recent widespread access to technology: Biggz is trapped by an alien in a dumpster and uses his phone to communicate with the others.
These things, combined with the film’s saturated colors, rapid fire editing, and music by Steven Price and Basement Jaxx, create a sense of immediacy that defines adolescence. With the majority of teens, everything is about the Now. What, after all is more exciting than the culture currently being created around you? What kind of an idiot looks back and not forward?
There is a certain dishonesty and cowardice about nostalgia that teenagers have a keen nose for. It is in fact a privilege of sorts to not have to deal with the realities of modern life, but instead a safe, romantic version of it. The weakest character in the film, Brewis, a rich white boy visiting the block to buy weed, does exactly this. Brewis listens to older black music (KRS-One, and seventies dub), but is afraid of actual black people: he sings along to â€œSound of da Policeâ€, then nervously hides his headphones when the boys approach.
Related to the previous, is the other reason I love the film: The majority of the main characters are black and multi-racial. The hero is a black teenager! What’s more modern than that? This is a hugely important part of the movie, yet mention of race is strangely missing from many reviews of the film, as though pointing it out would detract from its merits as a great sci-fi picture and turn it into â€œSomething about race.â€
This logic however is flawed, and does the film a disservice by ignoring a giant part of its brilliance. No one who watches Block doesn’t notice that the heroes are black, and that this is an anomaly. The characters didn’t magically turn out black by chance, it was Cornish’s conscious decision. If you don’t want your sci-fi movie about kids fighting aliens to have anything to do with race, you make Super 8. If you do, you make it about black and multi-racial kids in the South London projects. A film’s plot doesn’t have to be explicitly about fighting racism and classism to still be about race or class, and in fact I bet Block does more to encourage awareness than The Help for example.
Consider this exchange between Sam and Pest in the weed room. Yes, the weed room:
Pest: You’re quite fit you know, have you got a boyfriend?
Pest: You sure about him? Where is? Cuz he aint exactly lookin ouy for you tonight.
Sam: He’s in Ghana.
Pest: You’re going out with an African man?
Sam: No, he’s helping children. He volunteers for the Red Cross.
Pest: Oh is he? Why can’t he help the children in Britain? Not exotic enough is it? No getting a nice suntan.
Folks who exasperatedly dismiss discussion of color with â€œNot everything is about race,â€ are usually people who (unknowingly) have the privilege of being viewed as race-less (white). The race-less of course have the freedom to decide what is and isn’t about race. Those that are not seen as race-less (people of color) don’t. Cornish seems to understand what many people don’t want to admit, that a person’s race shapes their experience in the world. Whether it should or shouldn’t, it very much does. Ignoring this fact, even if well intentioned, perpetuates inequality. The boys in Block, as young men of color, are always aware of racial dynamics. So constant is this awareness, neither positive nor negative, that it becomes unconscious, like breathing. It’s always there. The film takes place completely within this understanding. There’s no need to make heavy handed points. Cornish trusts that we are not morons and so we will understand too.
In a scene where Sam, a white female nurse robbed by the boys at the beginning of the film, gives the police information about her robbers, mention of Moses’ race (usually the first thing noted) is very obviously absent from her description. Similarly, when an older white woman living in the block, talks to Sam about her dislike of the kids, she makes no mention of race. We know however exactly what she means: â€œThey’re fucking monsters.â€
We also know why a scene where Sam tries to block the boys from entering her apartment is great:
Thuggish black boys force their way into a white woman’s home!
A woman they just robbed.
Her fear is legitimate…
But the boys are running for their lives! Running from aliens bruv!
Race and class distinctions are absurd in the face of alien invasion!
Just look at Dennis’ face here (standing in the center). It’s perfection.
This scene would not be nearly as funny if the boys were white. Our understanding of its racial implications is what makes it work. Class and race are integral parts of the movie’s comedy.
Toward the end of the film, Moses makes a very poignant speech while hiding with a group of girls in the block. It is seemingly unprompted, but we understand immediately that these feelings aren’t new:
Moses: You know what I reckon? I reckon the feds sent them anyway. The government probably bred those creatures to kill black boys. First they sent drugs to the ends. Then they sent guns. Now they’ve sent monsters to get us. They don’t care man. We ain’t killing each other fast enough so they decided to speed up the process.
Pest: (takes a hit of weed) Believe.
And the girls burst out laughing.
But this laughter is necessary. A teaspoon of humor makes the social commentary go down.
I won’t tell you what the aliens look like, I won’t tell you how much blood is or isn’t shed, and I won’t tell you if anyone kisses anyone else. I won’t tell you anything more except this: Attack the Block is first and foremost a great movie, it is secondly a great sci-fi movie, and lastly, but not leastly, it is great and sly commentary on race and class. It is all three of these things simultaneously, none detracting from any other.
Now go see it yourself and tell me I’m wrong.
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