An Essential Goodness: Attack the Block (2011)

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attack the block 2011

An essential goodness:

ATTACK THE BLOCK

Graham Williamson revisits Joe Cornish's 2011 council estate-set alien invasion film, Attack the Block, which brilliantly subverted the notion of faceless 'hoodie horror'...

The Anti-Social Behaviour Order or ASBO was a British civil order designed to tackle low-level delinquent behaviour without criminal sanctions. They could be issued for public drunkenness, vandalism – even loitering with friends, which sounds to me like social behaviour. In theory anyone could receive an ASBO, but in practice they were generally used against the young.

   Inevitably, making it easier to level penalties against young people resulted in an endless flood of stories about youth crime. This fuelled a paranoid fear of working-class youth that had been brewing in the UK since the horrific murder of James Bulger in 1993. The tabloids began a race to find the most emblematically repulsive scumbag they could, giving each one a catchy supervillain nickname. If you lived in Britain during the 1990s and 2000s, you may remember them: Ratboy, the Lotto Lout, the Beast of Brixton.

   Actually, the last one wasn’t a tabloid figure. It’s what Jerome (Leeon Jones) calls the alien his friend Moses (John Boyega) has just killed at the start of Attack the Block (UK, Joe Cornish, 2011). A tale of juvenile delinquents who put their criminal talents to use saving their neighbourhood during an alien invasion, it was the first film for both Boyega and Cornish, and it celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. attack the block 2011

   It arrived with an executive producer’s credit for Edgar Wright and a trailer that made the most of Nick Frost’s supporting part; these, rather than the first-time director and largely unknown leads, set the audience’s expectations. The film shares several virtues with Wright’s work, chiefly clever structuring, a crack-along pace and a deliberate clash between Hollywood-slick visuals and specifically British subject matter. Unlike Wright’s films, though, it isn’t a comedy. It has several terrific laugh lines, but it’s also joltingly comfortable with killing off its likeable young cast. 

   This subversion of expectations was a problem for some, not least Mark Kermode, who regretted his memorably tense conversation with a jet-lagged Cornish [1]. Indeed, the commercial problem Cornish’s films keep running into is also their most endearing trait – they are achingly sincere, with an utterly unironic faith in young people’s essential goodness. It’s as central to Attack the Block‘s council estate horror as it is in the rural fantasy of his second, equally wonderful, film The Kid Who Would Be King.

   Cornish made his name in the comedy duo Adam and Joe – his colleague Adam Buxton voices a wildlife documentary in Attack the Block. They specialised in scabrous media parody, particularly media aimed at young people. (Cornish once tried to persuade Buxton to watch Skins by saying ‘It’s not as hateful as it seems’)[2] With his own films, he has so far chosen not to continue this critique, instead creating the kind of youth-oriented media he wishes existed. Perhaps this has made it harder to market his films to fans of his TV and radio work. Peers like Alice Lowe and Armando Iannucci have taken some big risks in their directorial careers, but Prevenge (UK, Lowe, 2016) and The Death of Stalin (UK, Iannucci, 2017) still feel connected to the sensibilities of shows like Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (Richard Ayoade, 2004) and The Thick of It (Armando Iannucci, 2005-12). Cornish, though, has shifted from caustic ironist to a man who genuinely cares about his subject matter. attack the block 2011

   In the case of Attack the Block, that’s social class. Not an unusual subject for British cinema, but Cornish takes serious risks in how he addresses it. He is upfront about being a well-off white man making a film about multicultural working-class kids – Luke Treadaway’s comic-relief posh stoner Brewis is an acknowledged self-portrait – but he does have skin in the game. In interviews, he traced the film’s origins back to an incident when he was mugged, just as Jodie Whittaker’s Sam is at the start of the film, and he noticed his attackers seemed both very young and very scared.

   Whittaker and Boyega went on to star in Doctor Who and Star Wars, but the connections between their characters are much deeper. It’s only in the third act that Sam realises she lives in the same tower block as Moses: divided economically, racially and generationally, their only encounter was at knifepoint. When Moses’s friend Pest (Alex Esmail, a serious scene-stealer) is mauled by an alien, Moses tries to get Sam, a nurse, to treat him. She warns him that she’s only just graduated, and Moses rolls his eyes at her youth and inexperience. It’s a character beat that’s reversed to heartbreaking effect when Sam enters Moses’s flat and realises this man, who’s threatened her and protected her, is just fifteen years old.

   In an interview for The List, Cornish singled out Harry Brown (UK, Daniel Barber, 2009) and Cherry Tree Lane (UK, Paul Andrew Williams, 2010) as taking ‘a slightly inhuman approach to an issue that, actually, involves very young kids.’ [3] He might have also have cited Eden Lake (UK, James Watkins, 2008) which Eleanor Miller described on this website as the key example of ‘hoodie horror’. Miller notes that the hooded top, as well as being a real-world shorthand for criminal youth, helps transform characters who we might sympathise with into horror-movie monsters. Without their hoods up, we might look into these children’s eyes and wonder who they were, where they came from, what damaged them. With their hoods up, they’re a horde, the titular ‘Them’ of David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s prototypical hoodie horror, less individual than Romero’s zombies. attack the block 2011

   One of the truly noble things Attack the Block does is reverse this trend. We first see the gang as shadows on a wall, deliberately setting up a false expectation that these will be the faceless, menacing brats of other British films. Yet those shadows fall on their graffiti tags, a statement of individuality in a world of drab, identikit streets and walkways. It’s a clever moment that also establishes the film’s aesthetic. Even the aliens, their pitch-black silhouettes broken up only by neon teeth and eyes, look like graffiti art.

   Boyega’s performance is terrific, particularly now we can compare it to what he went on to. His recent role as real-life police officer Leroy Logan in Small Axe (Steve McQueen, 2020) is radically different to Moses, not just in his attitude to the law but in his whole bearing. Boyega as Logan has a hard-won, mature resilience compared to Moses, who starts the film with the kind of fragile bravado that might impress a gang of teenagers and ends up some kind of hero.

   Cornish builds the case for Moses carefully. Nothing about his behaviour in the initial mugging scene is softened or apologised for, but when we see him alongside the gangster Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter, who also appeared in Eden Lake) we realise he’s not the worst product of his environment. He demonstrates his willingness to work with Sam when they’re both trapped in a police van that’s under alien attack, and he risks his own safety to rescue Pest from some more extraterrestrials. Some six minutes after that happens, he gets his big action-hero moment killing an alien with a samurai sword. attack the block 2011

   There are also people in the film who can push back on him, most obviously Sam but also his girlfriend Tia, played by Danielle Vitalis, who dubs him a ‘waste’ for carrying knives. Despite all of this, some British critics took a high moral tone towards Attack the Block, asking how Cornish could possibly expect us to sympathise with a mugger. Law of averages dictates that some of them must have enjoyed a gangster movie, perhaps even one by Cornish’s old schoolfriend Guy Ritchie. Yet there were few moral critiques of Ritchie’s heroes, all of whom had criminal records which made Moses look like… well, a scared fifteen-year-old boy. These were proper gangsters, traditional Cockney crims who were laddish, aspirational and – most importantly – white.

   Three months after the release of Attack the Block, the 2011 England riots wound to their close. The riots were sparked by police brutality and deprivation, though readers of the British press would be forgiven for assuming they were a Manson-style race war. Damian Thompson, then editor of Telegraph Blogs, blamed ‘white multiculturalists who made this outrage possible’ [4]. The Tudor historian David Starkey blamed Jamaican patois, claiming that ‘the whites have become black’ [5] while praising the Labour MP David Lammy for being well-spoken enough to become some kind of honorary white. Joe Kennedy’s book Authentocrats has some blood-freezing examples of ostensibly liberal commentators demanding a military presence on the streets of London [6], while Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed excerpts articles from the Guardian and the Observer medicalising the riots as a form of group madness, more similar to ants or termites than humanity. This despite the fact that, as Ronson notes, his neighbourhood was left untouched because it was on a very high hill. Have you ever seen a swarm of ants decide they can’t be bothered climbing? [7]

   My point here is not to argue that the riots were good or justifiable – they caused serious pain, and in many communities they worsened the deprivation and despair that drove people to riot in the first place. But the determination to refuse any possibility of basic human motivations on the part of rioters is disturbing. Even liberal newspapers wanted the rioters to be the faceless horror-film monsters of Eden Lake, rather than the flawed, violent but human and redeemable Moses.

   It’s no surprise that Attack the Block worked better for viewers outside of this feverish environment. Despite concerns about the impenetrability of the slang it picked up a cult following in America; Talib Kweli, no less, released a mixtape themed around the film. [8] Ten years on, its mix of suspense and sensitivity feels more like the attitude genre cinema – and the wider media – should always have taken when dealing with youth crime. If you argue that Cornish’s film hasn’t aged well, you’re really arguing that human empathy hasn’t aged well. I’d be impressed if you could argue that, but I’d be more impressed if you didn’t bother.


Sources:
[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-clDpRH3iA4
[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZTr9k4BUxw
[3] Gallagher, Paul, ‘Cornish Nasties’, The List issue 680 p. 16
[4] Thompson, Damian, ‘London Riots: This is What Happens When Multiculturalists Turn a Blind Eye to Gang Culture’, Daily Telegraph, August 8th 2011
[5] ‘Ed Miliband condemns David Starkey’s race comments’, BBC News, August 15th 2011
[6] Kennedy, Joe, Authentocrats: Culture, Politics and the New Seriousness, Repeater, 2018, pp. 205-206
[7] Ronson, Jon, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Picador, 2014, pp. 87-88
[8] https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLE28C7932C7425C00

Graham Williamson

Graham Williamson

Graham is a critic and film-maker from Teesside. He's worked for The Geek Show, Byline Times and Second Run DVD, but has never, to his dismay, seen a UFO.

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