Thursday, September 10, 2015
Throwback Thursday: Attack the Block
Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS.
"Folks who exasperatedly dismiss discussion of color with 'Not everything is about race,' are usually people who (unknowingly) have the privilege of being viewed as race-less (white). The race-less of course have the freedom to decide what is and isn't about race. Those that are not seen as race-less (people of color) don't. [Joe] Cornish seems to understand what many people don't want to admit, that a person's race shapes their experience in the world. Whether it should or shouldn't, it very much does. Ignoring this fact, even if well intentioned, perpetuates inequality. The boys in Block, as young men of color, are always aware of racial dynamics. So constant is this awareness, neither positive nor negative, that it becomes unconscious, like breathing. It's always there. The film takes place completely within this understanding."--Kartina Richardson (2011)
If it weren't for its teen characters' awareness of the elephant in the room called race, as well as the equally intriguing way Joe Cornish avoids being heavy-handed about it, Attack the Block--the British comedian's 2011 feature-length directorial debut--would just be an ordinary low-budget monster movie with a diverse cast instead of the above-average low-budget monster movie with a diverse cast it wound up becoming. Sure, it's always nice to see a black teen or an Asian American as the main protagonist in a sci-fi story, but what really matters in the end is how that story makes that protagonist of color come alive as a credible human being, and Attack the Block succeeds in that department.
Cornish is white, but one thing that makes him bolder than other white creators who have placed characters of color at the center of the sci-fi action is his decision to make Moses (John Boyega) a regular street kid instead of the saintly (and more palatable to older and more affluent white folks) cop or soldier of color who's usually pitted against unfriendly creatures in sci-fi. At one point, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a 20-something white nurse who's mugged by Moses and his mostly black friends at the start of the film and evolves from despising them to relying on them for her survival, is seen suggesting to them that they turn to the police for help in protecting their South London neighborhood from bloodthirsty alien beasts that have suddenly landed in South London for mysterious reasons.
Moses and his male and female friends want nothing to do with the Five-0--"You think the police is gonna help them? They might not arrest you, but they'll arrest them," says Tia (Danielle Vitalis), a neighborhood girl with a crush on Moses, to Sam--and Moses believes the aliens were sent to South London by the same government that sics the police on black kids and is responsible for various other things in what the British call the block and what we Americans call the projects. "Government probably bred those creatures to kill 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," says Moses. Right when Tia points out to Sam the privilege she has as a white person and Moses spouts his theory about the aliens being government-made, an acknowledgement of the racism that permeates the world outside the theater or TV screen finally emerges in the dialogue of this escapist movie--rather than the movie acknowledging it through coded dialogue from white characters like one lady's earlier view of Moses and the hoodies as "fucking monsters"--and Attack the Block, which was co-executive-produced by Edgar Wright, becomes something truly special and alive as escapist entertainment.
At that moment, this sci-fi story that takes place in the projects declares that, for once, it's not going to shy away from race and hide behind silly sci-fi metaphors to address race or naively attempt to put a Band-Aid on racism (the teens' frankness about the ignorant attitudes of the police in blocks like Moses and Sam's makes this film continue to resonate, especially during the rise of #BlackLivesMatter and the stupidity of #AllLivesMatter, a hashtag that could only come from the minds of privileged dolts). Also at around that point in the story, Attack the Block makes it clear that a cop won't be the hero of the narrative like he or she often is. Instead, the misunderstood kid who frequently gets harassed or cuffed (or killed) by such cops becomes the hero here, and though he's tougher than the other hoodies and will outlive some of them, he's extremely human, thanks to Cornish's writing for Moses and Boyega's ability to balance toughness with vulnerability. It's no wonder Boyega was cast in the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Wars: The Force Awakens: he's great at reacting to the mayhem surrounding him, just like how his Force Awakens co-star Harrison Ford was terrific at reacting to mayhem in action classics like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Fugitive.
While being interviewed by Esquire about the upcoming 007 movie Spectre, Daniel Craig said he admires Ford's performance in Raiders because "he's so fallible, to the point of comedy. You know at any time he might fuck up, and that adds to the danger and the excitement and the joy of it." That's also the key to why Boyega's performance in Attack the Block is equally enjoyable. There's a scene where you expect Moses to have a grand action hero moment and save Tia and her best friends from aliens who have invaded Tia's flat, but his katana gets stuck in a wall behind him, and Sam ends up having to save him. Meanwhile, Tia and Dimples (Paige Meade) don't really need Moses' help and are doing quite okay on their own, thanks to their fighting skills with whatever item they can get their hands on. Fuck Matt Damon. These ice skate-wielding South London girls should be the stars of Damon's next Bourne movie. Later on, when Moses gets his opportunity to finally blow each and every alien to smithereens with his lighter, his hands start to shake out of nervousness.
A lesser filmmaker would write Moses as being badass and flawless all the time, but Cornish prefers to make his protagonist a bit more complicated. He's as flawed as the Park siblings from the Bong Joon-ho masterpiece The Host (a double feature of Attack the Block and The Host, by the way, would be like the illest double feature ever) and is perhaps even more thoughtless than either of the Parks because in addition to mugging Sam, he's made the mistake of getting into business with an impulsive, murks-anybody-who-looks-at-him-wrong neighborhood drug lord named Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) and has made the additional mistake of murking the female alien whose pheromone summons all the male "gorilla wolf motherfuckers" to South London. In Predator, Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't responsible for bringing to the jungle the titular hunter from outer space, whereas in Attack the Block, our hero is the cause of all the bloodshed and the losses of some of his friends. So when it's up to Moses to fix what he started and decide what kind of adult he wants the block to remember him as, the climax of Attack the Block takes on an unexpected power, aided by both slow motion that doesn't look clichéd and silly for once and "Moses vs. the Monsters," a pulsating score cue by composer Steven Price and Basement Jaxx partners Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe ("Moses vs. the Monsters" is in rotation during the AFOS blocks "Beat Box," "Hall H" and "AFOS Prime").
One other thing makes Cornish bolder than other white writers who are outsiders looking in on ethnic settings they've chosen to write about: the wide range of black teen characters Sam encounters as the alien invasion forces her out of her comfort zone. (Had Attack the Block been a mainstream hit in America, it would have caused that racist old moron Lou Dobbs to get his panties in a bunch over the kinds of characters it chooses to sympathize with.) A lesser white writer would probably make every black teen character interchangeable and as sullen and parentless as Moses or as hotheaded as Dennis (Franz Drameh), whereas each of Moses' friends is distinctive in background (Moses is the only one who comes from a broken home, and the closest thing he has to a parent is an uncle who's never there) and temperament. For instance, Biggz (Simon Howard) has a white mom and is less willing than the others to get himself into dangerous situations; Tia and Dimples are similarly disdainful about Moses' flirtation with a criminal lifestyle. This also ties into how Attack the Block doubles as a thankfully non-preachy critique of the demonization of the working class in England.
Cornish was a one-time mugging victim who wanted to better understand his muggers and their everyday lives instead of being resentful of them (the mugging of Sam, who's clearly a stand-in for Cornish, was based on the incident Cornish experienced), so he takes working-class kids like the kindly and dorky Jerome (Leeon Jones) and the dorkier Biggz, who spends most of the film hiding in a trash bin, and he fleshes out those characters to prove the irrationality of demonizing and simplifying the underclass. One minute, they're mugging somebody and not enjoying it at all (they later admit to being scared while doing the mugging), and the next, they're chatting with Mum or Grandmum on their phones like typical 13-to-15-year-olds trying to make it home in time for dinner.
What also makes Attack the Block stand out is the much-welcome absence of CGI ("We used CGI a little to enhance, but mainly to remove details," said Cornish to GQ in 2011). The creature FX work in Cornish's film is largely practical. The alien attacks are fast and brutal, and this is a rare case where the fast-cutting that so many film critics complain about when they critique contemporary action movies is absolutely necessary. The fast-cutting prevents us from noticing how low-budget the monsters are: they're essentially just stuntmen--led by the great Terry Notary, one of the motion-capture performers who starred as the apes in the last two Planet of the Apes movies and a movement coach for those movies, by the way--inside eyeless gorilla suits outfitted with neon green teeth. But because the Attack the Block aliens aren't CG, there's a formidability and weighty presence to them that's missing from most CG creatures.
On one of Attack the Block's Blu-ray audio commentaries, Cornish says the inability to afford extensive CG FX allowed him to get authentic reactions from his child actors since the monsters were physically there on the set. The performances of the kids--who hadn't been in the acting game long enough to receive training on how to look like you're not pretending during a job that requires you to pretend things that aren't there are actually there--wouldn't have been the same if they had to react to a tennis ball on a stick. Attack the Block is more of a sci-fi actioner than a genuinely scary horror flick--The Walking Dead contains 10 times more gore each week--but the film contains one horrific moment: the child actors may have been way more terrified of the aliens than us adult viewers are, but the split-second shot of a mutilated Hi-Hatz looking like a black Voldemort makes you finally understand the kids' genuine fear.
The year 2011 saw four different Steven Spielberg-produced projects about alien invasions emerge in the same summer: the Abrams-directed Super 8, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Cowboys & Aliens and the TNT original drama Falling Skies, which just recently ended its run. I barely remember any of them, aside from Elle Fanning's amusing transformation into a zombie for Super 8's movie-within-a-movie and the troublemaking antics of Colin Cunningham's biker character Pope during Falling Skies' first season, whereas Attack the Block, which was made for much less and details an invasion that's on a much smaller scale, is a film that's still on my mind. Its potent mix of monster movie thrills and nuanced, non-preachy social commentary about both racial inequality and white privilege makes it a film I keep revisiting. Attack the Block murks them all.
Steven Price and Basement Jaxx's outstanding score cues from Attack the Block can currently be heard during the AFOS blocks "Beat Box," "Hall H" and "AFOS Prime." The 1993 KRS-One classic "Sound of da Police" and Richie Spice's "Youth Dem Cold," the two most memorable existing songs during Attack the Block, cannot be heard on AFOS, but they would have been part of the now-defunct AFOS block "Rock Box," which was discontinued in 2012 due to limited station hard drive space and the elimination from rotation of anything that wasn't original score material.