Attack the Block
2011 • 88 minutes • StudioCanal
Out of all the arguments that whiners against diversity in speculative fiction attempt to use, the “shoehorn” argument is one of the worst. In its most insidious form, it attempts to excuse erasure by pointing out that, say, a fantasy novel based on medieval Europe can’t have people of color because of history, neatly ignoring both the existence of people of color in European history (oh, hey there, medievalpoc! Keep up the good work!) and the fact that it’s fantasy. If speculative fiction is used only to repeat the same old stories over and over, then it’s not actually speculative fiction because there’s no speculation necessary. Diversifying speculative fiction requires no herculean efforts or suspensions of disbelief; it merely requires shifting the viewpoint.
Attack the Block, harking back to the low-fi action movies of the eighties, largely focuses on the action inherent in a teenage gang fighting off an alien invasion in their South London housing estate. But while it does include a young, conventionally pretty, and white female lead to soften the focus (and complicate our viewpoint of the leads, since the film opens with them mugging her), it never loses sight of what’s truly harmed these boys: toxic narratives about what it means to be a man and a culture that sees them as threats instead of people. That’s what leads them to kill the first alien that lands, putting everything into motion. It’s only through the rare opportunity to play the hero (albeit through circumstances they created, which the film and the characters own) that the boys—sharp Dennis, slightly kinder Jerome, hangers-on Biggz and Pest, and their leader, John Boyega’s tight-lipped Moses—actually begin to escape from and recognize those narratives. At one point in the film, in a rare and unsettling quiet moment, the kids wonder what the aliens are up to. The normally terse Moses offers this explanation:
No, I reckon yeah, I reckon, the Feds sent them anyway. Government probably bred those things to kill black boys. First they sent in drugs, then they sent guns and now they’re sending monsters in to kill us. They don’t care man. We ain’t killing each other fast enough. So they decided to speed up the process.
Director and writer Joe Cornish balances this elegantly with the rest of the film. While it deals with the issues that inevitably arise from its story (instead of ignoring them, as many texts do, out of either ignorance or cowardice), Attack the Block is not a dry thesis on race relations in South London. (Nor should it be.) It’s a kinetic, thrilling action movie that embraces its low-fi aesthetic, looking better on an eight million pound budget than some films do with much more. (I was going to pull a specific number to compare, then I learned that Maleficent cost one hundred and eighty million dollars to make and needed to lie down.) The limited locations, the boys scraping together weaponry from their homes, the mystery surrounding Moses’ apartment… so much is done with less in this film. The creature effects, which started with men in suits before some judicious special effects shots, are fantastic and truly unique. Apparently, focusing on physical effects made the reactions of the cast that much better, which is certainly a great argument against digital effects. Although a great argument for digital effects are the alien’s translucent, turquoise teeth and ultrablack fur.
Boyega, who we will be seeing soon in Star Wars: Episode VII, is a revelation. Moses doesn’t say much, but that’s because there’s an entire universe inside of him that he has no way to express. His street reputation and traditional masculinity in general requires him to fiercely guard his internal life, which makes it hard to remember that he’s just a kid. In fact, I’ve seen some comments and reviews where people have refused to empathize with Moses, but that’s almost the point of Moses’ character—take someone who gets judged very harshly very quickly and highlight their internal life while they become a hero. Boyega balances these contradictions so deftly, subtly, and heartbreakingly that I’m delighted he’s getting more high profile attention. I really hope Star Wars: Episode VII launches him to speculative fiction and/or action stardom, because he can breathe amazing life into his characters.
(Cute Boyega fact: he and Lupita Nyong’o hang out and he calls her Grace Jones. SCREAM. Okay, he can come be in Nyong’o and Christie Versus the Universe.)
I rented this DVD from the public library.