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September 15, 2011
Kartina Richardson

Attack the Block

streets

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.

“Is it hot in here bruv?” I said to the friend beside me.

“Nah blood, it ain’t,” 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 “Sound of da Police”, 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 “Something about race.”

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?

Sam: Yeah.

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 “Not everything is about race,” 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: “They’re fucking monsters.”

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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14 Comments

  1. Noo, you are dead right.

    Reply
  2. You talked me into it, girl. Will watch.

    Reply
  3. Perhaps it’s that I grew up in South London and I know and understand the setting very well, but this reading of the film seems a little simplistic to me. It’s not a simple, cliched, binary case of “estate kids good but misunderstood / trapped in a cycle of poverty and crime” vs uncaring society and hostile establishment. It’s a bit more complex than that. They’re not really heroes, per say. They (Moses) only become heroes when they start to take an active role in doing good for their community. They start off, as the old lady says, as “fucking monsters”.

    The film’s central theme is taking responsibility for your own actions, changing your behaviour, making a positive contribution to your community rather than a negative one, and society as a whole pulling together rather than apart. In the case of the nurse, she makes a connection with her neighbours and becomes a part of her community rather than being scared of it. Moses and his gang save their community from the aliens, rather than terrorising and robbing it. It’s only then that he feels a sense of pride, self-worth and real respect from his peers, because doing the right thing – rather than the easy thing – is the only way to achieve that.

    Also interesting to note that Cornish is lampooning “gangsta” youth culture in Britain to an extent as well. Some of the banal, idiotic crap the kids come out with illustrates how anti-intellectual this mindset is. Education doesn’t get you ratings, fam, but being a badman does. If the film can be said to have one major villain, it’s local warlord Hi-Hatz. He embodies/promotes the poisonous cycle of failure that kids on my city’s streets get sucked into as much for fairly superficial reasons as anything else.

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  4. Also:

    “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.”

    The reason they start laughing is because it’s bollocks. Cornish is taking the piss out of it rather than making social comment. The whole “the government is putting guns and drugs on the streets” conspiracy theory is actually quite widespread here, because it allows people to duck responsibility for the ills of their communities and pin it on the establishment. And it’s especially ridiculous because it’s frequently espoused by the same people that make negative gangsta rap that encourages young black boys to slaughter each other and sell drugs. The same culture that ridiculous and discourages any attempt at education or intellectuality, a road which would help people to challenge such stupid ideas and come to a real understanding of the world for themselves.

    Reply
    • The whole conspiracy theory about “the government putting guns and drugs on the streets” has some resonance here in the U.S. (I’m assuming you’re British since you used the expression “bollocks”) because generally guns and drugs weren’t considered a big national problem until they were brought into white suburban neighborhoods. There was also a story that broke big in the late 1990′s about how the U.S. government actually supplied the rebels in a 1980′s war in Central America with weapons funded by drug sales in the U.S. Here’s a link about the reporter who broke the story and what happened to him, as well links to the actual story itself:

      http://www.democracynow.org/2004/12/13/investigative_reporter_gary_webb_who_linked

      Also, it’s been interesting to go to the IMDB messageboard for ATB and read all the hate—racial and otherwise this flick has gotten from a lot of British posters, some of whom couldn’t even get past the first scene where the nurse gets robbed.Seriously, a lot of those posts have to read to be believed, and even then you still won’t believe them! Regardless of that, me and a friend of mine went to see it at a Detroit-area theater and we loved it—so much that I’m gonna get a DVD of it for each one of us. I’ve always liked British films, and this one was no exception—the moment I saw the trailer I knew I was gonna see it. To Kartina: I enjoyed your review of this and I enjoy this site very much–you can write, so keep on keeping it up!

      Reply
      • Max Oblivion

        First, this silliness about the CIA selling crack to inner-city youth is pathetic. The CIA doesn’t need drug sales to finance covert operations. They have a very large budget and are virtually unaccountable to anyone. Second, inner cities are often living hells because of some of the people living in them. The neighborhood I currently live in is subject to the whims of the Mexican Mafia. Three of my neighbors were murdered by a hit man one afternoon because they were making unauthorized drug sales. In years prior to that, it was Crips and Bloods that were fouling the area with drug sales and the associated drive-bys and beatings. I’ve seen many young men and women full of potential turned into gangsters and crack whores. Believe me, it wasn’t the CIA’s doing. It’s always a lot easier to blame some external specter for our troubles than to look in the mirror and take responsibility for the ills that plagues us.

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  5. This movie is easily one of the best I’ve seen in a while. An absolute MUST SEE…hilarious, tense, action packed, genuine “street” feel. I can’t believe so many of people haven’t even heard of it! Cool article!

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  6. One more thing is that the whole movie takes place at night, so each frame is “lit” and the cinematographer lights this movie beautifully. Nice to see lighting dominate a movie instead of cgi.

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  7. Okay,. Until now you couldn’t pay me to watch a sci-fi movie and now I want to see this one. The things you do to my mind’s eye opinion of certain movies.. Great review.

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  8. Haven’t seen Attack the Block but would like to and haven’t seen District 9 either but wonder how much they have in common as comments on race and class. If you’ve seen both, perhaps you’ll mull it over.

    Good review and I admire your enthusiasm so eloquently presented.

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  9. Saw this the other night and I agree with you on all your great points. Love the creature design, as I’m tired of H’wood’s usual arachnid/mandible/Gieger aliens. Also loved how the kids didn’t turn into superheroes–they crashed their bikes and scooters instead of suddenly turning into X-Games stuntmasters. All very realistic decision-makings, nobody has a sudden change of heart–even when Pest bonds a tiny bit with Sam, it is revealed that he still intended to keep her ring. Little bits like that were very, very smart. The more I think about the film, the more I like it very much.

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  10. A , if it turns our Cornish was lampooning these kids and their culture i would like it a lot less. Let’s hope that’s not the case. Otherwise it’s just like kartina said, it’s a great sci fi comedy of it’s age.

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  11. This was a great review – basically straight after reading it I watched the movie. I had been kind of anxious knowing that it was written by Joe Cornish, but you sort of persuaded me that I ought to give it a chance. Honestly, though, I ultimately agree with A (at least as far as the subject matter is concerned). This movie does lampoon the trappings of a particular youth culture, and it is concerned with personal responsibility. The aliens are even racialised monsters made of pure blackness, and the characters themselves remark on this. It sat really oddly with me. I couldn’t work out what Cornish was trying to say – unless he was being relentlessly platitudinous (and I think he was). I enjoyed it, it was funny and amusing and all the rest, but morality-wise I just found it peculiar. I probably would have been happier had the aliens been white hedge fund monsters, or expense account monsters, or monsters resisting EU calls for transaction tax.

    Yeah, that line about the feds is played for laughs. And it’s written by Joe Cornish. Who went to the Westminster School.

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  12. You are completely right about the race/class factor thanks for the honest review and it always nice to see black people in the sci fi genre

    Reply

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