[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Attack the Block.]
Know what I reckon, yeah? I reckon the feds sent them anyway. Government probably bred those creatures to kill Black boys. First they sent drugs to the ends. Then they sent guns. Now they send 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.
Though most may now know him as Finn from episodes seven through nine of the new Star Wars trilogy, John Boyega‘s debut film was in the British 2011 science fiction horror film Attack the Block. I loved the film the moment I saw it upon its original release. It’s an original tale showcasing communities we rarely see in any film, let alone a hard genre space like this one. Joe Cornish made his directorial debut with assured style and confidence, using his low budget limitations to ingenious ends. The cast is simply phenomenal, especially the central group of kids who live in the Ends, the fictional London council estate the film takes place in. And Boyega, out of the gate, is a movie star.
Currently, Boyega is trending because of impassioned, emotional comments he made at a Black Lives Matter rally in London. During his comments, he mentioned that he was unsure whether speaking out against racism so vocally would endanger his future career in Hollywood, leading to several figures in Hollywood assuring their support to him. It also led to a Twitter-wide reevaluation of Attack the Block — or, in the case of some folks who only knew him from Star Wars, an initial evaluation. In my reevaluation of the film, in the new context of Boyega’s comments and the state of nationally systemic upheaval we hopefully find ourselves in, its messages have done nothing but sharpen in the teeth.
Boyega plays Moses, a kid in the Ends who, alongside his friends, hang out and get by, sometimes by getting into petty criminal trouble. During a Guy Fawkes Night celebration (a telling choice of contextual events from Cornish), Moses and his friends mug Samantha (Jodie Whittaker), a nurse who has recently moved into the same building as these kids. While the film up until this point has centered itself around Samantha, our white female heroine stuck up by raucous Black teens in the night, Attack the Block is smarter than that, playing with the traditional filmic vantage point (and by “traditional” I mean “coded for centuries by white eyes”) and flipping its perspective to these teens. We see them hang out, we seem them figure out their next moves — and then we see them react to a goddamn alien invasion from the sky.
While the film, even at a brisk and tight 88 minutes, doesn’t lose its endearing sense of casual charm among these authentic performers, it’s at this point Cornish steps on the gas, placing Boyega, Whittaker, and the rest of the gang on a bombastic plot that stops for set pieces owing debt to slasher films, siege films, and the overall oeuvre of John Carpenter. The creatures attacking the block are fierce, animalistic beasts with pitch-black fur and gnarly, glow-in-the-dark fangs, and we watch them battle and even kill some of our favorite characters in grisly, inventively-staged ways. Through this all, Moses serves as our stoic, pain-behind-the-eyes central hero, and Samantha slowly realizes her initial impressions and prejudices about the group were ill-founded and unempathetic.
The film ends with a final stand — Moses enters the apartment building alone, a plan to blow up the flammable aliens locked and loaded, with Samantha assisting him via radio. The plan works — Moses destroys the aliens, saving the block from more destruction. Is he greeted with adulations and congratulations? Certainly not initially. Instead, he is promptly arrested alongside the rest of his friends for all of the crimes and murders we’ve witnessed thus far. As they load Moses into the back of a police truck (an image we’ve seen a few times before in the film), the police ask Samantha if she can confirm that Moses and his friends were the perpetrators of these crimes. Samantha, who started the film ready to sic the police on them all, tells them that they, in fact, protected her, and they all live in the same neighborhood together. As Moses sits in the police truck, ready to accept his fate as another undeserved pain in his life, we hear the crowd outside begin to chant his name: “Moses, Moses, Moses.” And he, just barely, smiles.
Genre films have always been an effective conduit for socially progressive commentary, the monsters unleashed on their heroes serving as easily fanged metaphors couched in accessible, popcorn-ready entertainment. Cornish’s commentaries and metaphors, as evidenced by Moses’ theory about the aliens quoted upfront, are much blunter and more forward-facing than many of the film’s genre peers. While it’s perhaps unlikely (though never explicitly disproven) that the aliens are literal government creations designed to attack Black people, it’s easy to assign similar fears and anxieties about the systemic dehumanization and murder of Black people onto these monsters. Whether its a murderous police force or a government eager to push Black people into marginalized spaces, these aliens clearly do not originate from the hyper-local, “block” level our heroes do. In one scene, our heroes wonder aloud if aliens falling from the sky are actually fireworks in celebration of Guy Fawkes day. But this theory is disproven, as fireworks from the community rise up from the community before falling back down. These monsters are simply falling down from nowhere, uninvited.
Even and especially in scenes not involving monsters or genre-tinged violence, Attack the Block explores othering and racist perceptions, especially related to the supposed protections offered by the police, on a pervasive, pointed level. In a scene following Samantha’s initial mugging, she has this exchange with an older white female resident named Margaret (Maggie McCarthy):
MARGARET: What did the police say?
SAMANTHA: Said it was one of the busiest nights of the year. Bet they don’t even turn up.
MARGARET: Only it’s not like the kids are scared of them no more. Walking around with knives, great big dogs like they own the block. Excuse my French, but they’re fucking monsters, isn’t they?
SAMANTHA: Yeah. Fucking monsters.
The police and the threat of authoritative retribution and incarceration are a constant knee-jerk reaction for Samantha. When Moses is trapped in the back of a police truck during a literal alien attack, begging Samantha to let him free, she does nothing but hesitate (later, of course, when the situation is flipped and Samantha is trapped in the back begging to be let out, Moses frees her immediately). During one headquarters planning session, Samantha immediately suggests calling the police on the aliens attacking them. This privilege-fueled reaction is, of course, met with scoffs and fatalistic defeat by her new young allies. They won’t arrest the actual people responsible, of course. They’ll arrest the young folks. “They arrest us for nothing anyway,” concludes Pest (Alex Esmail). Samantha is, in some ways, a symbol of a current brand of ineffectual white liberal: eager to perform platitudes of tolerance while afraid of the actual people she claims to accept. And the film finally ends with her getting a touch of education through experience.
This positively educational experience does come at a cost for Moses, as educational experiences for white, ineffectual liberals often do. Pest’s prediction is proven correctly: They are all, indeed, arrested for nothing. But the final moments do offer a sort of gritted-teeth, nose-to-the-grindstone hope. Moses’ peers, the folks of similar class and race, all begin to chant his name. And even Samantha realizes she was wrong, using her voice to directly refute the system’s claims that Moses doesn’t deserve his humanity. If this one block can band together and destroy the systems (er, the “snarling alien dogs”) bound to destroy it, what’s to stop the next block, and the next block, and so on?
Remember the exchange between Margaret and Samantha I quoted earlier? Beyond the cowardly, violent, and straight-up icky othering going on, there’s one section of it that is, perhaps intentionally by Cornish and certainly unintentionally by his character, inspirational in our current national moment. “It’s not like the kids are scared of them no more… They own the block.” The kids certainly do own the block. And the outside instigators of force, the systems who’ve gotten away with literal murder due to rigged systems, the monsters falling down on top of their blocks, are the ones who should start to fear.
For more explorations of Attack the Block, here’s our own Matt Goldberg on his favorite scene of the film.