ATTACK THE BLOCK
Joe Cornish the writer and director of Attack The Block was educated at the independent, expensive and exclusive Westminster School. This means he acquired knowledge and understanding amongst the British elite and that his family had more than a few bob. But Cornish was fortunate. Because London has had fifty years of gentrification, he grew up in a comfortable home that was situated alongside working class areas. In London the wealthy now fulfil the phenomenon that first appeared in the 1937 Bogart movie Dead End. The rich jostle alongside the poor.
At the beginning of Attack The Block a female white nurse called Sam walks past expensive residences and returns to her temporary home in a tower block. Londoners will understand the significance of her journey and note the geographical proximity of the rich, who have affluence and promise, to the others, who are expected to know their place and avoid resistance and protest. The almost final line of the film is a policeman saying to a black kid, ‘Don’t resist me.’
Attack The Block is funny which is no surprise because Cornish began life as a comedian and because the success of Shaun Of The Dead inspired the producers to try a similar trick. Most of the comedy in both films arises because the characters are confused by inexplicable events. There are no role models or manuals for an apocalypse, and experience of black hairy monsters that have teeth that glow in the dark is limited. The characters in Attack The Block are not only confused, their responses to what is happening reveal the limits to their lives. Attack The Block may be sympathetic to its working class heroes but they are not self-sufficient. The education of the silly and uncool white middle-class teenager is important. He is the only one who has any clue as to what may be happening. The rest can do no more than remember movies and TV programmes.
If this sounds like the usual middle-class scorn for ordinary people, Cornish does make fun of everyone. This includes the black kid who thinks MI6 is called Section 6, the exhausted parents glued to the television and oblivious to what their children may be doing outside their front doors, the wasted drug dealer, the desperate hard man, clueless policemen and the middle class nerd who wants to be accepted by black teenagers because he thinks they are an authentic alternative to his privilege.
There is division between the sexes in Attack The Block but it is not considered as sharp or as worthy of attention as the gap between the social classes and the conflict between black and white. The four teenage girls, though, are a hoot and almost steal the film. Although dopey their sneers are robust defence mechanisms. Fortunately for the plot the girls relent and add to the mayhem. But as impressive as the comedy is in Attack The Block the two moments that stress the class and division in British society are what make the film important. These moments appear at the beginning and the end of the film and, although not didactic, they are bold indeed.
On her way home Sam meets five black teenagers. The leader carries a knife, and the five attempt to mug Sam for her money. This shocks and impresses because we realise that these muggers are intended to be the sympathetic heroes of the film. When Sam describes her attackers to others, she calls them monsters. Her progress within the film consists of understanding that the teenagers, for all their flaws, are neighbours and human beings. The second memorable moment occurs close to the end of the film when the British flag is used as a positive symbol and plays a part in the survival of a key character. The message of the film is clear. Despite our differences we are all British, the rich and poor and the white and black. We need to accept that our neighbours, whoever they are and whatever their resentments and ambitions, are human beings. This mix of social criticism and nationalism is familiar, and so is the message. Brutalised people trying to survive in an unfair society should not make us waver from our commitment to national identity.
Samuel Fuller the maverick American director used his films to make the same point about the USA. He also criticised his society. Middle-class hypocrisy is exposed in The Naked Kiss. In that film his heroine is a bald female prostitute, admittedly she looks great when she grows hair. In Shock Corridor and The Crimson Kimono American racism is dissected by Fuller. Yet the same man insisted upon national unity and loyalty. He did this because he considered patriotism not an emotional indulgence but a practical requirement for the survival and prosperity of that society. The Americans in the films of Samuel Fuller are not curious about alternative political philosophy. Indeed, few of them read. They are contemptuous of ‘reds and commies’. Not everyone, especially in Britain, liked the films of Fuller. Dilettantes who belonged to the same generation as the parents of Joe Cornish condemned Fuller as a fascist. The final film of Fuller was White Dog and it told the tale of a dog-owner who trains his dog to attack and kill black people. The film is a masterpiece and refutes any half baked notions about Fuller and fascism. His films, though, can make an audience uneasy and ambivalent. Fuller is not always sensitive.
The childhood of Cornish meant that he was buffeted by working and middle-class communities that were alien to each other. Cornish may or may not be a devotee of Samuel Fuller but, torn between communities, he is entitled to have the same concerns about identity. Cornish has been lauded and has avoided the scorn Fuller suffered. No one has called Attack The Block fascist and neither should they do so but those who feel uneasy by the appearance of the Union Jack near the end of the film have their reasons. It is not difficult to imagine a British fascist watching the film and rethinking the target audience for his movement. Humour and wild chaos have made Attack The Block a cult film but the appearance of the British flag, however disquieting, takes it to another thought provoking level. Neither does the film have liberal internationalist sentiments. Sam and her boyfriend intend to travel abroad and help the poor in the underdeveloped world. Pest, the white teenager in the group of muggers, asks why the British middle class prefer to help poor foreigners rather than those within their country. Sam Fuller would have approved of the outburst by Pest, and, of course, so would a few fascists.
British politicians of today scratch their empty heads over why social mobility in Britain is in reverse. Attack The Block was made in 2010. That year a new Tory Government was elected. The Government imposed austerity but talked a lot about incentives for the wealthy. Since then seven million British families have become poorer and the income of the wealthiest 10% of the population has more than doubled. After the Tottenham riots of 2011, the same year that Attack The Block appeared in British cinemas, the British Government suspended the rule of law so that it could put people in prison for stealing a bottle of water. Nobody in authority referred to the poor as equal neighbours. Hostility to immigrants has been nurtured, and the working class has been condemned as feral. The status of the poor is understood by the kids in Attack The Block. The alien monsters are described by one of the teenage gang as ‘blacker than my cousin’. A national flag can be a dangerous symbol but Cornish suggests that it offers not just hope for the oppressed but insists upon responsibility and empathy from the privileged. He has a point, and so did Fuller. We should, though, be wary. To seek the promise of universal comfort in the Union Jack and wave the damned thing around is dangerous.
The tower block where the action takes place is called Wyndham Tower and refers to the science fiction writer John Wyndham. There is also a reference to J G Ballard. None exist for H G Welles, which is a pity because the genre of alien invasion began with him. For most of the cast of Attack The Block this has been their finest moment so far. Many were handpicked local kids. Not all of them sound as if they have completed the training course for actors but in an odd way this helps the film. Everyone has a wild edge, as if all are defined by a hidden personal eccentricity and flaw. This includes the two young kids whose wide-eyed action fantasies skirt the main action. The gun waving chief dude is great, and so is his flabby white accomplice whose look of bemused compliance would be beyond a trained actor. Jodie Whittaker, the actor who plays Sam, has theatrical roots and has built an impressive and testing CV since Attack The Block. The male lead John Boyega is now famous and rich after appearing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Who knows what will happen to Boyega. Presumably Peckham will remember him.
Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.