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.
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!