All In The Same Gang: Examining Attack The Block’s Approach To Race

By Guest Contributor Kartina Richardson, cross-posted from MirrorFilm

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.

SPOILERS AHEAD

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.

  • Pingback: Attack the Block Proves You Don’t Have to be Epic to Be a Hero | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

  • http://commentarybyval.blogspot.com/ Val

    I saw this film over the weekend and it was AMAZING seeing a Black teen being the brave and SMART hero! 

  • http://robobtmcguiver.livejournal.com Carl

    In this case, I’d wager I can say who’s more right.

    It would be one thing to critically debate whether the portrayal of a multicultural (and, yes, majority black) group of teens as hood rats is perpetuating racial stereotypes. I’d disagree but I’d be willing to listen.  But these dudes are suggesting that by making protagonists out of a group of (again, mostly black…one mb’er acknowledges a white member but claims he’s been tricked or whatever into buying into “black/gang culture” [direct quote]) chavs who rob a white woman at the beginning and (the same mb’er notes) by having them speaking a mean language he can’t understand the movie is racist against white people.

    @0afbbd80084b1b2ff033287aafe52922:disqus  made an excellent point about white gangster heroes in movies never being called out in a similar way.  Look at Grosse Point Blank — a loveable hitman!  The arguments they’re trying to make are absurd and don’t merit response, but if I was going to respond to these guys, I’d probably say:

     A) “racism” is not a catchall for “things I disagree with.”  Racism and classism, to be meaningfully harmful, need to contribute to some kind of systemic subjugation of a group of people  based on their skin color and/or economic status.  This whole white privilege race card is really popular these days (you know, what with a black president trying to enslave whitey and all), and, as a relatively privileged white person, it pisses me off to no end.

    B) I’m not sure you (not you, them) actually watched the movie.  Either that or you sincerely believe in a ‘one-strike, you deserve to die’ policy on crime.  Even if the movie hadn’t been full of poignant and difficult (for some) to swallow commentary about poverty and social imbalance, and their relation to race, Moses and co. are portrayed as people growing up in a tough environment who are still working out right and wrong; these are not Clockwork Orange monsters, they’re just kids who start the movie off with a couple of bad decisions and (especially in Mose’s case) become visibly tormented by them once they are faced with the consequences they’ve had on others’ lives.

    I’d love to make this point on some of the imdb mbs but past experience makes me think I’d just stir a very ugly hornets’ nest.  God bless Racialicious!

  • http://robobtmcguiver.livejournal.com Carl

    In this case, I’d wager I can say who’s more right.

    It would be one thing to critically debate whether the portrayal of a multicultural (and, yes, majority black) group of teens as hood rats is perpetuating racial stereotypes. I’d disagree but I’d be willing to listen.  But these dudes are suggesting that by making protagonists out of a group of (again, mostly black…one mb’er acknowledges a white member but claims he’s been tricked or whatever into buying into “black/gang culture” [direct quote]) chavs who rob a white woman at the beginning and (the same mb’er notes) by having them speaking a mean language he can’t understand the movie is racist against white people.

    @0afbbd80084b1b2ff033287aafe52922:disqus  made an excellent point about white gangster heroes in movies never being called out in a similar way.  Look at Grosse Point Blank — a loveable hitman!  The arguments they’re trying to make are absurd and don’t merit response, but if I was going to respond to these guys, I’d probably say:

     A) “racism” is not a catchall for “things I disagree with.”  Racism and classism, to be meaningfully harmful, need to contribute to some kind of systemic subjugation of a group of people  based on their skin color and/or economic status.  This whole white privilege race card is really popular these days (you know, what with a black president trying to enslave whitey and all), and, as a relatively privileged white person, it pisses me off to no end.

    B) I’m not sure you (not you, them) actually watched the movie.  Either that or you sincerely believe in a ‘one-strike, you deserve to die’ policy on crime.  Even if the movie hadn’t been full of poignant and difficult (for some) to swallow commentary about poverty and social imbalance, and their relation to race, Moses and co. are portrayed as people growing up in a tough environment who are still working out right and wrong; these are not Clockwork Orange monsters, they’re just kids who start the movie off with a couple of bad decisions and (especially in Mose’s case) become visibly tormented by them once they are faced with the consequences they’ve had on others’ lives.

    I’d love to make this point on some of the imdb mbs but past experience makes me think I’d just stir a very ugly hornets’ nest.  God bless Racialicious!

  • http://robobtmcguiver.livejournal.com Carl

    In this case, I’d wager I can say who’s more right.

    It would be one thing to critically debate whether the portrayal of a multicultural (and, yes, majority black) group of teens as hood rats is perpetuating racial stereotypes. I’d disagree but I’d be willing to listen.  But these dudes are suggesting that by making protagonists out of a group of (again, mostly black…one mb’er acknowledges a white member but claims he’s been tricked or whatever into buying into “black/gang culture” [direct quote]) chavs who rob a white woman at the beginning and (the same mb’er notes) by having them speaking a mean language he can’t understand the movie is racist against white people.

    @0afbbd80084b1b2ff033287aafe52922:disqus  made an excellent point about white gangster heroes in movies never being called out in a similar way.  Look at Grosse Point Blank — a loveable hitman!  The arguments they’re trying to make are absurd and don’t merit response, but if I was going to respond to these guys, I’d probably say:

     A) “racism” is not a catchall for “things I disagree with.”  Racism and classism, to be meaningfully harmful, need to contribute to some kind of systemic subjugation of a group of people  based on their skin color and/or economic status.  This whole white privilege race card is really popular these days (you know, what with a black president trying to enslave whitey and all), and, as a relatively privileged white person, it pisses me off to no end.

    B) I’m not sure you (not you, them) actually watched the movie.  Either that or you sincerely believe in a ‘one-strike, you deserve to die’ policy on crime.  Even if the movie hadn’t been full of poignant and difficult (for some) to swallow commentary about poverty and social imbalance, and their relation to race, Moses and co. are portrayed as people growing up in a tough environment who are still working out right and wrong; these are not Clockwork Orange monsters, they’re just kids who start the movie off with a couple of bad decisions and (especially in Mose’s case) become visibly tormented by them once they are faced with the consequences they’ve had on others’ lives.

    I’d love to make this point on some of the imdb mbs but past experience makes me think I’d just stir a very ugly hornets’ nest.  God bless Racialicious!

    • Drhiphop85

      I believe I misinterpreted you post. I thought you meant that they said that the incident and cast was being racist towards POC. Which, like you, I would disagree with but some people would definitely argue against us.

      You point about what racism “is” is a touchy one. For many people, of all shades, it is seen as just anything bad about another race (or ethnic group). This is the laymen’s definition for the word it seems. Academically, of course racism (or more accurately institutional racism) is definitely something tied to systematic forms of racial oppression. But that seems to be a hard concept for people to grasp.

  • Notebook

    I think I understand the hate for the “bad” type of nostalgia the author of the piece describes–as a teenager, it got really irritating reading on the internet on how my generation was worse off because I wasn’t able to enjoy a certain experience an older person had when they were my age. Hell, even though I’m 25, it still irritates me when people my own age do it.

    I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone say kids today are worse off now because they have never seen something like Ducktales. Now I love Ducktales when I was young too, but I’m not going to feel sorry for children today because it’s not on anymore. Doesn’t make any sense at all. I was kinda under the impression that was the type of nostalgia they were talking about–the one that assumes that your past experiences were superior than others younger than you, or even the same age. The Ducktales example was odd, but when you apply to things like race relations and such one can see how it can get very problematic.

    I kinda worded that weirdly I’ll admit, but I don’t think there’s nothing wrong with feeling nostalgic for past things. For example, I felt really nostalgic when I got a cold at the beginning of the month because it reminded me of my past childhood memories of what I used to do when I got sick then… a strange thing to feel nostalgic for I’ll admit.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Javan-Nelums/696759111 Javan Nelums

    You this is how you do a movie with a POC cast.

  • Roundelay78

    To: Kartina Richardson:

    First of all, I love your movie site—haven’t visited it in a long time, glad your post reminded me of it—I’m enjoyed reading it, as well as your reviews—gotta start checking them out again. Second, I loved ATTACK THE BLOCK, it’s just a good, fun, ass-kicking film–it had everything you’d want in a sci-fi movie–bad-ass action, mad adventure, tough smart, realistic characters, great suspense scenes—saw it with a friend who enjoyed the hell out of it too. Unfortunately, it’s only playing at literally ONE theater in the whole metro Detroit area, with only one showing per day, and it’s gotten like  NO promotional hype in the media whatsoever (I’ve only seen the trailer online, period). I’m thinking that it’s because it’s not your typical lily-white British flick that always gets foisted upon the public—-I was like, “Finally–a new British movie that actually acknowledges the fact that there are black folks and OTHER people of color in Britain for a change!”

    From what I’ve read on IMDB about the film, a lot of people seem to have problems with the fact that the main characters are black and that they’re wanna-be thugs, as if they have never seen a film with white characters who act the same damn way—like the recent ANIMAL KINGDOM,which got all kinds of accolades and hype, despite the fact that it’s about a family of murdering thugs in Australia. Hell, Martin Scorsese’s best-known films are about cold-blooded gangsta thugs—GOODFELLAS,THE DEPARTED,CASINO, you name it—and he still gets all kinds of accolades—dude DOES have talent—I just think he is way overrated sometimes. And I enjoyed the hell out of the slang–which IMDB complained about,too.  There was a film made in 2006 titled KIDULTHOOD (made and written by black British actor Noel Clarke,who plays the main villain and he followed up with a sequel) in which the South London street slang was so thick, I literally could not understand it at times, and wished that it had subtitles–which is probably why it never got distribution here in the States.  That’s wasn’t the problem with ATTACK THE BLOCK—I loved the slang and even learned some new words—from now I’ll just say that I’m gonna “merk” somebody instead of ,um, whatever I think it means! Good post though!

  • la luchita

    I loved (LOVED) Attack the Block, and in many ways I thought that it had really amazing things to say about race and class. But… (minor spoiler) not a single white character in the movie dies (other than the police officers). And a lot of POC do. I can’t imagine, given how thoughtful the director was on a lot of these issues that he fell into the trap of the POC always dies in horror/action/sci fi movies.

    • dersk

      Fell into the trap or used the trope to further make his point?

    • Rosie Best

      I actually came out with the impression Cornish had done this on purpose – another way of highlighting the social context. When there are white kids involved in exactly the same trouble, they’re STILL more likely to come out of it all right than their black/POC friends. 

      I adored the film though so I’m aware I might be straining a little to find reasons for its flaws… it’s certainly a fine line between highlighting the trope and just going along with it.

  • Anonymous

    I love this film sooo much. I just wished some things turned out differently but besides that I loved it. 
    Some of the reviews did make me sideye. I read on i09 that it was very unlikely for a gang to be multi-racial well here in the UK it is very likely. I mean they are all the same age go to the same school, I could easily see boys like them on road.

  • http://robobtmcguiver.livejournal.com Carl

    “Now go see it yourself and tell me I’m wrong.”

    Would love to.  Where’s it playing?!

    • http://robobtmcguiver.livejournal.com Carl

      Never mind, went ahead and found a copy online (shame on me! I’ll be good and pay for it when it comes out of DVD…I was impatient).

      What a refreshing dose of casting and convention-bucking sweetness.  And it’s a brilliant movie to boot.  All the more tragic then that it’s only up for a limited release in the states, according to imdb.  We NEED more movies to break ground like this and we need to promote the shit out of them and make them blockbusters. 

      (Related note: the imdb message boards have the standard threads about how “racist” it is because it “glorifies” black-on-white muggings, while these same threads reference “black/gang culture” without the slightest hint of irony, and also sickeningly gripe about how not enough main characters [that is, POC characters] were brutally killed by the aliens.  I know the message boards aren’t the greatest place for cultural analysis, but it’s a sad reminder that we’ve got a long way to go.)

  • Soph

    My flatmate and I were watching previews of this for so long and were so happy it didn’t disappoint! I loved it so much! 

  • http://rvcbard.blogspot.com RVCBard

    I saw Attack the Block as soon as it came out, and I plan on getting it on DVD. Now where could it be playing this weekend or next?

    • TeakLipstickFiend

      Have also seen it (it was out in France a while ago) and loved it and will definitely get it on DVD. I know I’m going to want to watch it more than once. Funny, scary, moving and great monsters!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kim-Akins/694459632 Kim Akins

    Sci=fi, unlike other genres, is more likely to cast women and POC as the leads.  I guess once you’ve asked an audience to believe in a drooling, triple jawed alien, believing that women and POC’s can be the leaders isn’t as hard to do. 

    • http://twitter.com/danthrasher Daniel Thrasher

      Unfortunately, many (I’d argue most) of the female characters in sci-fi are just walking breasts wearing little clothing.  That’s why it’s so important for high quality genre work to be recognized and recommended.

    • Oneemusha

      I disagree with your statement. Sci fi shows are among the whitest shows there is.

      Too bad, I’m a sucker for sci fi … I’m ready to settle with anything as long it is scifi, space exploration, alien , third contact, different timeline ,man eating plant or monsters.. you name it. And if the cast is all white , then too bad but i’m too desperate

    • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Donovan

      I’ve noticed that too, is there a real reason? I think it might be because sci-fi isn’t as character driven so the producers of movies may not worry as much about the audience being able to identify with the lead. Also romance is often a stumbling block for POC leads.

      How many sci-fi movies are there with a strong black male character in close quarters with a white chick fighting the evil… but no kiss (when if it was a white dude in the same move they’d toss in a kiss.
      In sci-fi they can just drop the romance sub-plot, but if it is a romantic comedy not having a white male or female lead would mean ~interracial love~ (uh oh) or making “too many” of the main cast non-white (can’t have that!)

      It’s easier for people to deal with a movie where the leads are black when they are kicking butt and solving mysteries than when they are falling in love… or so those who produce movies seem to think.

      Just my theory.