“In the Streets It’s Getting Hot”: Attack the Block and Racial Inequality

attack the block coverOver the weekend, in a spectacular use of time that only goes to show how very impressive my decision-making skills are, I revisited a lot of my favorite Simon Pegg and Nick Frost collaborations. Eventually, through gratuitous use of Wikipedia, I happened upon a lesser-known film called Attack the Block, the 2011 directorial debut of Pegg and Frost collaborator Joe Cornish. Did I watch it? Yes, I did. Like Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, Attack the Block is in many ways a send-up of a popular genre (this time, alien invasions). It’s suspenseful, engaging, and hilarious. Most of all, it’s thought-provoking: it has a level of diversity that is rarely found in sci-fi, and uses its cast to make some pointed racial commentary.

Spoilers for Attack the Block below.

To put it very simply, Attack the Block is another alien invasion movie. But to say it is just another alien invasion movie would be doing it a severe disservice. Attack the Block is set in a South London council estate—for American readers, these are the projects—which is populated mainly by poor people of color. The film starts as a group of these kids confront and mug a pretty white woman on her way home from work. The scene’s clearly set up so that the woman, Sam, is the victim, and the kids are the villains. Most movies would stop there—the kids would be stereotypical thugs, and the woman would go on to be saved by some white male protagonist. Attack the Block doesn’t take this route. Instead, we follow the kids home to the Block, learn their names—Moses, Pest, Dennis, Jerome, Biggz—and when the aliens crash land into their neighborhood, we see their reactions. At first, they think it’ll be a fun game—Moses kills one of the aliens and drags it into the penthouse apartment in the Block, which is secure because a local gangster uses it to sell drugs. However, they’re soon chased by many more of the aliens, who seem intent on getting to Moses.

The heroes of this story.

The heroes of this story.

The microcosm of race within the Block is one of the many things that sets this film apart from others in its genre, and analyzing the movie through race is integral to understanding the characters. (Some reviewers seem to think the characters are “mostly repellent”—no guesses as to why.) The protagonist, Moses, is a fifteen year old Black kid, and his desire to be respected by his friends, which is often at odds with his desire to do the right thing, is a driving conflict in the movie. Pest, his right hand man, is white, and the others are Black and multiracial. Rare though it is for a movie to even have more than one person of color, his friends aren’t one-note sidekicks, either. Although the first scene is clearly from Sam’s point of view, priming us to dislike the kids, Cornish is sure to give each character distinct personalities. He doesn’t go out of his way to make them likable; instead, more importantly, he makes them understandable. He shows us Biggz’s nagging mother and Dennis’s overbearing dad, Pest’s loving gran and Moses’s absent uncle. We have front row seats to the kids’ interactions with each other, and as we learn about them, we even get a look into their reasoning behind the mugging:

Sam: Five of you and a knife against one woman? Fuck off!
Dennis: Don’t build it up, bruv, it weren’t all that. We never even touched you.
Jerome: The blade was to get it over with quick. We was as scared as you.

The group reveals that for them, the mugging was for money, and for Moses, who has no family worth speaking of, it was about gaining the respect of his peers. The characters aren’t saints and they aren’t there for the audience to pity and look down upon—rather, they’re realistic, well-written, and well-acted. Later on, Moses tries to apologize to Sam in his own way, giving her back the ring they’d stolen from her and entrusting her with carrying out the penultimate part of his plan to defeat the aliens.

Most importantly, Attack the Block shows us racial inequality from a Black point of view. When Sam goes to the police to report her mugging, the police officers are quick to arrest Moses, running him down using excessive force. Although the police officers are soon killed by the aliens, Moses is still left handcuffed in the police van and must wait for one of his friends to rescue him. Afterwards, Moses says:

You know what I reckon, yeah? I reckon the feds sent them anyway. Government probably bred those creatures for killing Black boys. First they sent drugs to the ends, then they sent guns. Now they 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.

Sam, a newcomer to the Block, is indicative of this racial commentary as well. After the mugging, she’s escorted home by an elderly neighbor, who sympathizes with her and tells her that Moses and his friends “are fucking monsters, aren’t they?” to which Sam readily agrees. However, once she’s back in the Block, things change. Moses and his friends invade her apartment while hiding from the aliens, and once they figure out she’s a nurse, they ask her to treat Pest, who was wounded while fleeing. She agrees, and when the aliens break into her apartment, the group defends her. In one telling scene, Sam is clearly framed between the real monsters (the aliens) and who she thinks of as monsters (Moses and company). She chooses Moses, and joins the group in hiding from the aliens. While running, she’s made aware of her own privilege; she tells them they should call the police, and the group laugh it off, saying the following:

Tia: You think the police is gonna help them? They might not arrest you, but they’ll arrest them.
Dennis: For murder of two police officers, vehicle theft, resisting arrest, everything that happened everywhere in the ends tonight.
Pest: They arrest us for nothing already.

Another white character, Brewis, illustrates this racial inequality as well. Brewis is a posh white kid who only wandered down to the Block to buy some weed, and he’s primarily concerned about his dad and his lack of (his dad’s) money. He’s not worried about being killed or being unlawfully arrested or even about the fate of the residents of the Block. He’s only concerned about his own problems, and in a conversation with his weed dealer, Ron, he makes it clear that he thinks his problems are more important than theirs:

Brewis: What if those kids are right? What if there is some kind of invasion and the police are out there? I can’t get busted again.
Ron: You’ve been busted?
Brewis: Yeah, left half an oz in my jeans, put them in the washing machine by mistake and, I shit you not, my mum’s underwear came out stinking of skunk. My dad obviously caught a whiff and, um, cut off my allowance. Next time it’ll be my testicles.
Ron: Yes, it’s tough times for you, mate.
Brewis: The irony is, now I’ve gotta sell twice the amount just to pay the rent.
Ron: I thought you said you lived at home?
Brewis: Yeah, well, I mean “rent” in the proverbial sense.

It’s only after Brewis is convinced of the alien invasion that he joins up with the group and starts to understand what the group has to deal with on a daily basis. After the aliens have been defeated, he, Ron, and Pest try to sneak out of the Block, armed only with a long-handled broom and a baseball bat. Because of a series of earlier explosions, they can’t see anything, and in the fog, they’re quickly surrounded by armed police officers who shout, “Put your weapons down! [Get] down on the ground! Down on the ground!”

attack the block white boys

Yes, they’re so frightening.

The end of the film is particularly important in light of recent events. Moses leads the aliens to his own apartment and blows it up using one of Pest’s fireworks and the gas from his stove. All the aliens, presumably, die, as Moses hangs out the window, only holding on by clutching at a British flag. But as he exits the Block, Moses is arrested because, just as Dennis predicted earlier, the police believe he is responsible for the deaths and “disturbances” of the evening. Pest is shoved and handcuffed by police officers who shout “Stop resisting!”, to which Pest replies, “I ain’t resisting, you’re pushing me over!” Biggz tries to stop the police as well, telling them, “Why do you always arrest the wrong people? Moses is a hero, don’t you get it? He saved the Block!” The police are incapable of believing that the people they think of as low-class criminals are actually heroes, and barring that, they also appear incapable of believing that people of color, regardless of heroism, should be treated respectfully.

This logical fallacy is perhaps best illustrated by Sam as she attempts to help Moses, Pest, and the others. When the police first arrested Moses for mugging Sam, it’s clear that Sam was pleased, if not happy. She saw him and his friends and thought Moses deserved to be locked up. However, by the end of the film, she sees Moses and Pest and all the others as people, not as some frightening Other. When the policemen try to talk to her about it, the dichotomy between their attitudes toward Moses and her attitude toward Moses becomes clear. Sam wants to tell the police officers about Moses’s actions, but the police have already built and decided on their own narrative:

Policeman: I believe you were out with two of my officers earlier tonight? You know they lost their lives?
Sam: Yeah, I was there, we were attacked. Those boys over there, the ones you’re arresting—
Policeman: Can you confirm it was them? Don’t let them intimidate you, miss.
Sam (curtly): No. I know them. They’re my neighbors. They protected me.

If you’re a monster movie buff, Attack the Block is definitely worth watching. The monsters are uniquely scary without seeming too far-fetched or too strange, and they’ll certainly make you second-think going on dark roofs at night. But even if you aren’t a fan of monsters or alien invasions, you should give this film a go. Attack the Block brings up some significant points about race relations, racial inequality, and police brutality without spoon-feeding you all the answers, and the cast, most of whom were recruited from council estate schools, turn in excellent performances across the board. Plus, you’ll get to see Nick Frost in a brilliant cameo as the weed dealer. What’s not to like?

attack the blockFor more on Attack the Block, race, and class, check out this great post at Racialicious.

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4 thoughts on ““In the Streets It’s Getting Hot”: Attack the Block and Racial Inequality

  1. I loved this movie. It’s probably the best straight up examination of race in a science fiction film (i.e., using actual black people, instead of aliens as a metaphor for the “other”) since “The Brother from Another Planet”.

    I think John Boyega (Moses) is going to be a talent to watch. I look forward to seeing him in Star Wars: Episode VII.

  2. As a biracial person myself I’d like to see more people of color in sci-fi, but I’m getting sick and tired of blacks being portrayed as victims in the movies. I want to see them portrayed as scientists, astronauts and explorers. Let’s get them out of the ‘hood, broken homes and hip hop culture.

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