Attack the Block Proves You Don’t Have to be Epic to Be a Hero

Movie theaters used to hold a special kind of magic.

Lined up with my friends, clutching the occasional purchase of popcorn and a soft drink, or sneaking smuggled in snacks, we would watch in awe and horror as teenagers paraded around on screen, seemingly oblivious to the threat of violence lurking around the corner. When I was about thirteen years old, I sat through the original Scream. The rules of horror movies, as articulated by the character Randy, were clear and concise:

Randy: There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex.
[crowd boos]
Randy: BIG NO NO! BIG NO NO! Sex equals death, okay? Number two: you can never drink or do drugs.
[crowd cheers and raises their bottles]
Randy: The sin factor! It’s a sin. It’s an extension of number one. And number three: never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, “I’ll be right back.” Because you won’t be back.

But there were some rules that we knew that never were articulated.

    1. The black character always dies, normally first. This is normally related to not being lead characters, but easily dispensable side characters. Sure, we had Tales from the Hood, but we knew the score. I think that’s why all of us at the local participatory theater screamed the whole way through I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. “Run, Brandy, Run! You gotta make it because they already killed Mekhi!”

    2. Upper middle class white kids are the stars of these things. In general, no matter how big and bad the villain is, they are still hanging out in pastoral campgrounds or tony neighborhoods, waiting for their victims to sun themselves on their cabanas. The only exception I can think of was Candyman who was black and haunted the Cabrini-Green housing projects. And later, came a few other things we need not name. But in general, horror film villains and heroes alike were in the providence of “not us.”

So when Moses and his crew took to the screen, defending their tower block from alien invasion, my inner fourteen year old wanted to jump up and start yelling.

Unfortunately, my 28 year old self knows we don’t do those things at the Museum of Modern Art, even if we really, really, want to.

[Some light spoilers ahead.]

We’ve already posted Emma’s review of Attack the Block (see here) and Kartina’s analysis of the race in the film (see here) so I won’t rehash already covered territory. Instead, we will talk about the interesting racial subtext director Joe Cornish inserted into the film.

I was fortunate enough to catch the film with a special treat: Joe Cornish was there, along with Luke Treadaway, to discuss the film after the screening. If you didn’t play the trailer above, watch for the first title screen, which reads: “The deadliest species in the galaxy” before cutting to a shot of the kids. Cornish created the film specifically as a reaction to other films that showed those people and that environment on a pessimistic way.  Cornish grew up near tower blocks, noting that they were erected after London was bombed (commonly referred to as The Blitz) in World War II. This appears to have influenced his perception of events as he reserves no sympathy for the press, who often demonize the people living in the tower blocks.

The opening scene, which establishes Moses (amazingly played by John Boyega) as an anti-hero, shows the crew robbing a young white woman. Cornish said he pulled the scenario straight out of real life: he was mugged by a group of teens. But, he explained, “Instead of being frightened, it fascinated me.” So from the start, Cornish aims to reverse the viewers thinking – to start with that act of robbery, allow all the attendant thoughts, emotions, and stereotypes to creep in, and then peel back the layers to expose the teens humanity.

Delectably low-budget feeling, Cornish pointed out that the film was influenced by older American cult classics like The Warriors, The Outsiders, Gremlins, The Goonies, Over the Edge, Predator, and ET. (“I see it as a complete flip of ET,” Cornish emphasized.)

Cornish continued, explaining “You can watch horror as genre movies or as political movies.” He give a nod to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead for the craftily included racial subtext and reveals one of his own: The idea for the design of the alien forms was to take what the press wrote about lower-class kids – feral, dark, unthinking – and physically embody it as the monsters they fight.

It was a joy to listen to Cornish – he explained everything from the awesome soundtrack (by one of my favorite groups, Basement Jaxx, and with overall director by Steven Price, who last scored Scott Pilgrim) to the symbolism behind the names. In response to an audience question, Cornish explains Moses and the theme of redemption. “Subtle, wasn’t it,” he starts, also noting that he liked the extra flourish of the idea of the naming, and thinking of the hopes that the parent had for the child they would name after such a strong religious figure. “It might be a bit heavy with the biblical stuff, but fuck it, I liked it,” he concludes.

He also dropped another Easter egg, explaining that many times, cost plays a major role in what is shown in the film. He indicated he had “an amazing, Errol Flynn style fight with Moses climbing up the balcony and fighting the aliens,” but it was too costly. He notes that sometimes, though, innovation comes from brokeness, pointing to George Lucas’ iconic Death Star as something amazing that resulted from a budget issue.

At one point, I wanted to ask a question – after being so amazingly frank on issues of race and stereotypes, how was Cornish going from a project like Attack the Block to a reboot of Tintin? After I identify myself, Cornish reveals he’s actually read some of our commentary (!) and explains that Tintin is a complex character. He notes Tintin was written from 1929 to the 1980s.  Hergé later regretted some of what he wrote; Cornish points out the most controversial title (Tintin in the Congo) is still popular in Africa. He also explains that Tintin as a character has evolved; Tintin is a pacifist by the final book, so evolution is built into the text. The movie is based on the 9th book.

As I departed, a reader named Keisha caught up to me in the hallway. We talked a bit about the film and she asked a question that I had wished I’d thought of – since the film was well-received in the UK, did the riots change that perception? It’s a question we will have to find the answer to, perhaps another time. Cornish has hinted at a possible sequel (with ideas supplied by Boyega), but the jury is still out.

Since we’ve all become huge fans of the film on Racialicious, some of the folks involved in the promotion have offered us a giveaway – one lucky reader will win a free DVD copy of the film, and one runner up will win the theatrical poster. To win, give us your best idea for what should happen in the sequel OR what they should do (or should not do) with an American remake. 300 words max, in the comments to this post, winner selected Friday. If you are not selected, don’t worry – Attack the Block is out on DVD today!

  • SA

     I could not love this film any more if I tried.

    Sequel:  Nice White Lady tries to coach Moses to take some A-levels and go to college, but he reveals he’s already done it on his own.  He starts university but finds himself disconnected both from the other students at school, and his mates back on the block.  When he discovers aliens disguising themselves as (white) humans at university, he gets flack from the professors for neglecting his studies in order to fight them…

  • I_Sell_Books

    Attack the Block is a fantastic movie – funny, scary, a bit sad, with a big question at the end, but the kind where you suspect you already know what’s going to happen.  Also, Basement Jaxx, yeah!

  • Kat

    I really liked ‘following’ the 14 year old you to the Museum. ;)

    Something else though: I just checked out the other reviews of the film. In the “Streets Afire” one (comments closed) there is a not-familiar-with-the-UK mistake that really bothers me. Bonfire Night is not an “annual London festival for fireworks”. It’s Guy Fawkes night all over the UK: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Fawkes_Night

  • Keisha

    First off, it was great to see you, Latoya, at the movie.  I kinda do want to see a remake with American kids.  Imagine: Attack the Block: Bedstuy.  But I would rather see a sequel.  I fell in love with the movie and would love to see Moses and his crew back again.  

    So maybe the sequel
    can have one of the aliens not really dead from the first movie and go to exact
    revenge on Moses and his crew for killing most of the aliens.  Since we
    never really see them dead, one could be alive to get even.  He can call more reinforcements from outer
    space to make way for a second alien attack. 
    Initially, the cops won’t believe Moses or his crew about the aliens and
    they’ll arrest and charge Moses with all that has happened in the first
    movie.  Obviously he’ll be given a major
    sentence for all the crimes that were committed (deaths of several persons, car
    theft, and armed robbery).    But when the rest of the aliens land the
    cops will have no choice but to rely on Moses.  This is because he is the only one who
    successfully killed the aliens and lived to tell about it.  They will have to grant him a full pardon on
    the condition that he helps get rid of the aliens.  And although the y will still have their
    qualms about Moses, his crew and inner city youth altogether, they will be
    forced to view Moses on a higher echelon because he has done what no other
    person has done: kill an alien.  They
    need him.  He’ll be like Spider-Man or
    Batman; hated and loved at the same time. 
    Also, I want to see a bigger role for the girls as well.  They massacred one of the aliens in the first
    movie and they will become a huge asset to Moses’ crew.  Let them become
    part of the alien fighting crew since Moses lost two of his friends.  Oh
    and the gangsta little kids too.  Obviously they can hold their own.Latoya, I wish we had more time to discuss the movie after the screening because I really did want to touch on the issue of gender and people of color.  I mean I love the the dichotomy between the white woman and the girls of color.  For instance, when Moses suggest that they go to Tia’s house, Sam becomes confused as to the purpose of going to this girl’s house if they are supposed to be running for their lives.  Then Moses makes the most poignant comment that defines the girls.  He says: “If you see them fight, then you’ll know why we are going there.”  This interested me because Sam was seen as the woman in the distress (the stereotypical white woman that always needs saving) and Tia and the girls were seen as girls who could take care of themselves.  Even though Sam ultimately kills an alien to save Moses’ life, the roles were defined early on.  Sam is the woman in distress and we ultimately pull back the layers to see her depth, much like Moses and his crew.  We are shown and then told in the beginning of the movie that Tia and the girls are ‘sassy gangsta’ girls who can hold their own.  They don’t really need saving because they can fight.  We never get a chance to pull back the layers to see their depth.

    • Anonymous

      I mean I love the the dichotomy between the white woman and the girls of color. 
      Oh ye gods yes.

      #1 – I was SO MAD at Sam spending the first half of the movie screaming, crying, and LOCKING HERSELF INTO THE POLICE VAN LIKE A FOOL.  Way to re-enact white girl stereotypes.

      #2 – Full cosign on the role of the girls. We wreck, but are not necessarily in need of attention.  That said, that scene was mad real.  They go from screaming to trying to kill the thing in seconds!  It was interesting she killed it with an ice skate – my mom told me a story once about a bully picking on her brother (my uncle) so she hit him in the face with a rollerskate. So, yeah, I could totally see myself sitting there and screaming.  I also loved the awkwardness of their interactions with each other, so teenage!

      But I agree that the young girls of color were depicted totally differently than that grown-ass white woman, and that in itself feels like commentary.  That also gets into my idea for the sequel, which we will get into on Friday.  But put it this way – Tia is clearly parallel to Moses in a lot of different ways, but forced into being more responsible.  Would love to see a Tia and Dimples parallel plotline.

      But that said, I was glad to see girls included at all.  It would have been really easy to just have the guys and Sam.

      #3 – Can I also just say I’m sad little Rufio 2.0 died? Franz Drameh needs to be in more movies, ASAP. Him grabbing a weapon from the katana set killed me!

      #4 Damn I love these kids!

      Then there’s John Boyega, the eldest at 19, the leader of the gang on screen and, from what I can tell, in real life as well. He waits for the others to finish speaking before he does and at one point silences the room completely by referring to Malcolm Gladwell in the middle of a discussion about action figures.

      Chat moves on to lighter subjects. Trainers. BlackBerrys. How the film’s slang might go down in America. “They’ve been feeding us with new language for years,” says Boyega, a little irritated. “Slang in The Wire, Pandora language in Avatar, flipping Klingon. What the hell, man? Just take it as it is and enjoy the film.” “I watch their films,” says Howard, “and I can understand.”

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/may/08/attack-block-london-teenagers-interview

      Clearly, this kid is Racialicious. We need to go find him. 

      • Keisha

        Haha, I totally agree. That article was dead on. My major was anthropology with a special interest in linguistics so I was overly excited when they mentioned to issue of language and colloquial use (another whole issue that can be a discussion post. Geez this movie gets deeper and deeper with every new thought). And I loved that about the film. It didn’t seem like the kids were trying to their jargon. It sounded fun and I must say I mimicked them wholeheartedly for like a day because I found to speech style fun.

        I do wish that Rufio 2.0 wasn’t dead. He was too fine to die (teenage boy crush; can’t wait until he ages. Hopefully he ages well.). Perhaps in the sequel he can come back to life. It’s scifi, anything can happen.

  • Kate

    Nitpicky, I know, but Scream 2 actually dealt with both those rules, albeit not in list form: “It’s a dumbass white movie about some dumbass white girls getting their white asses cut the fuck up.” Of course, it largely ended up maintaining those rules anyway: the black couple are the first to die, and Sidney’s friend Haley dies. The only poc to survive is Gale’s black camera man, who skips town as soon as he figures out he’s in a horror movie, because “Brothers don’t last long in a situation like this.”

    That said, it’s definitely a rarity for a horror film to feature characters of color who aren’t just tokens there to up the body count and provide some “flavor” to a white world. (At least in mainstream horror–there is definitely an underfunded black horror community, they just tend to go straight to video.) I’m definitely looking forward to Attack the Block.

  • Anonymous

    Greetings from southern California!  Despite considering myself an avid moviegoer, I have to admit I never heard of this movie until reading about it on Racialicious — which has become a part of my daily routine.  Thanks to your review and further analysis on “Attack the Block”, I’m rather eager to see it for myself now. 

    Thanks, and keep up the great work!

  • http://momsomniac.wordpress.com/ Momsomniac

    Haven’t seen it yet – so my best input for what they should NOT do for an American remake is….recast this with Dakota Fanning.

    I am wracking my brains for the horror movie parady where one character refuses to get out of a van, saying something like “Brothers don’t do well in these kids of movie.”  Anyone know what that was?

  • Grace

    Hey Latoya! Was great to meet you guys last week. I just came here to say that I. Love. Matthew. Lillard. LOL (And the first Scream, though it’s not lost on me that not even the supporting cast has any POC…but I can’t help my <3 for Stu Macher, lol.) I got so excited reading "The Rules", smh, lol.

    I will def be buying AtB this week. I was raised on scary movies, and as a result, I loooooooooooove them, lol. (And in my book, "scary movies" is just an umbrella term for all things horror/sci-fi/thriller/suspense/paranormal, lol.)

  • Grace

    Hey Latoya! Was great to meet you guys last week. I just came here to say that I. Love. Matthew. Lillard. LOL (And the first Scream, though it’s not lost on me that not even the supporting cast has any POC…but I can’t help my <3 for Stu Macher, lol.) I got so excited reading "The Rules", smh, lol.

    I will def be buying AtB this week. I was raised on scary movies, and as a result, I loooooooooooove them, lol. (And in my book, "scary movies" is just an umbrella term for all things horror/sci-fi/thriller/suspense/paranormal, lol.)

    • Anonymous

       I was raised on scary movies, and as a result, I loooooooooooove them, lol.
      Lucky you, I freaking hate them.  This one was a lot more fun and goofy, reminded me of Scream and the Gremlins, so it was cool.  But horror films have always given me nightmares.  The reason I’ve seen so many is entirely due to peer pressure when I was a kid.  (Once, my cousin threatened to fart on me in my sleep if we didn’t watch ALL the Freddy Kruger movies in a row. He kept menacingly holding my pillow close to his butt for the first three. Luckily for me, by the time we were on the more modern one, they weren’t even trying anymore. )

  • http://www.scribblesandsonnets.blogspot.com Jessica Isabel

    I was at this panel! I was the girl in the Star Trek costume who asked how the actors were able to keep it real when they were fighting the monsters.

  • http://www.scribblesandsonnets.blogspot.com Jessica Isabel

    I was at this panel! I was the girl in the Star Trek costume who asked how the actors were able to keep it real when they were fighting the monsters.

  • http://www.scribblesandsonnets.blogspot.com Jessica Isabel

    I was at this panel! I was the girl in the Star Trek costume who asked how the actors were able to keep it real when they were fighting the monsters.

    • Anonymous

      We just missed each other! Chose to go to the screening the night before the panel, instead of going to the one at ComicCon.  I was there though!

      • http://www.scribblesandsonnets.blogspot.com Jessica Isabel

        Damn! Next time you’re at some kind of event in my neck of the woods, I’ll come and find you (not in the creepy stalker way)

  • Enter Name Here

    Slightly off topic, but in Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, Jada Pinkett-Smith was the heroine of the movie. LOL but it’s a BAD movie.

    On topic, I’m impatiently waiting for this to arrive in my Netflix box but will probably run out and buy it this week anyway. I have yet to see bad reviews for this film so I’m convinced I’ll be in to watching some good stuff.

  • Gregory Whiting

    Hey!  This movie was incredible!  I’m a Black 25 year old that is very familiar with the whole experience of being assumed to be dangerous when walking around at night (or evening) regardless of what I’m wearing.  I dealt with that a lot as a teen living in Southfield (a middle class Black city) on the northern border of Detroit.  Metro Detroit/Southeastern Michigan is the most racially segregated region of the county, so I’m very aware of how race and class divisions can play out, and it was a relief to see it in a movie, even if it was for the UK.

    If you do this movie/concept again (which you should), I’d love for you to do it in Metro Detroit.  Our economy is horrible, and even worse for Black people (also, it’s been that way for “us” long before this “general” recession).  It would be really easy on your budget, and the extras (community members) in their lives and ways of knowing each other would provide excellent backdrop for your story.  I’d love a DVD and poster, but more than all of that, I’d be willing to volunteer my time, and social connections to help you set such a story in Detroit or even Flint (a place that is considered as more dangerous, poor, and generally “hood” than Detroit)

    All in all, I just want you to know that I was really touched by the movie.  I grew up watching horror flicks, and talking through them, and it felt so honest and real to see what you put up there.  Please continue to add more elements of (marginalized) people’s realities in your movies.  We are watching, we take note, and we do respond with our money.

    -G

  • Gregory Whiting

    Hey!  This movie was incredible!  I’m a Black 25 year old that is very familiar with the whole experience of being assumed to be dangerous when walking around at night (or evening) regardless of what I’m wearing.  I dealt with that a lot as a teen living in Southfield (a middle class Black city) on the northern border of Detroit.  Metro Detroit/Southeastern Michigan is the most racially segregated region of the county, so I’m very aware of how race and class divisions can play out, and it was a relief to see it in a movie, even if it was for the UK.

    If you do this movie/concept again (which you should), I’d love for you to do it in Metro Detroit.  Our economy is horrible, and even worse for Black people (also, it’s been that way for “us” long before this “general” recession).  It would be really easy on your budget, and the extras (community members) in their lives and ways of knowing each other would provide excellent backdrop for your story.  I’d love a DVD and poster, but more than all of that, I’d be willing to volunteer my time, and social connections to help you set such a story in Detroit or even Flint (a place that is considered as more dangerous, poor, and generally “hood” than Detroit)

    All in all, I just want you to know that I was really touched by the movie.  I grew up watching horror flicks, and talking through them, and it felt so honest and real to see what you put up there.  Please continue to add more elements of (marginalized) people’s realities in your movies.  We are watching, we take note, and we do respond with our money.

    -G