Long is the list of science-fiction mediated texts that deals with social issues, especially race. Vic Morrow’s character was forced to confront his bigotry in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and the shift of social power that was the authority of Black folks as their integrity and compassion was tested for the mercy of whites in one of Ray Bradbury’s short stories in Illustrated Man, first published in 1951. The vast possibilities for what this genre allows is the reason so many of us love it. It keeps stories fresh with its ‘anything goes’ ideology.
My highly anticipated viewing of Attack the Block (2011) was no shock to my media-junkie geek/cultural critic savvy. It was overt in its treatment of race and class dynamics without being exploitative. The action and motivation was exciting enough without being preachy. And it had a wickedly fresh twist that began in the darkness of night, where the silence is replaced with the bustle of markets, vendors, firecrackers and the numbness of the multi-racial (but mostly Black) working-class youth in London’s South End.
Whatever the plans of the group of five young men headed by Moses (John Boyega), the rather timid white lady Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a rapper/pot dealer and his crew (the label of rapper is a stretch), two little guys with moxie, and a group of girls similar in age to Moses’ group are demolished when other-worldly creatures decide to make a literal and figurative impact on their neighborhood on this fateful night. Moses and company, after capturing and killing one of these creatures, find more are landing down. The creature’s motivation we later learn is based on simple biological impulse.
As the young men’s thoughts and motives take them to the idea of a possible alien invasion, the five arm themselves with the gears of street warfare to defend their homes, positions, and lives. When the beginning of the film opens with Moses along with Pest, Jermone, Biggz, and Dennis mugging posh-looking Sam, it signaled their hostility with territory, seeing Sam as an easy target of wealth and privilege that in some sense, they’re hungry for. It was a clear us versus them interaction that is much more complicated than the usual estimation of black youth = bad, white woman = good. The root is systemic without dismissing the fact that enforcing violence to intimidate and terrorize is rarely, if ever, a just solution.
So what happens when aliens land and see both policemen and pot dealing goons as dispensable threats? The symbol(s) that something greater is out there that sees what is human as a threat forces Sam along with the un-fab five to ward off these creatures together. But Sam remains to stick out like a sore thumb. When Moses makes a poignant point about the institutionalized extinction of people of color, he replaces the drugs and guns with aliens in a monologue. They are attacking their specific neighborhood and anyone in the vicinity, but he is not addressing Sam when he reasons a why. Although she becomes an unlikely ally and the source of Moses’ guilt, she is still a relative outsider but simultaneously, a part of the rather ambivalent relationship those of different races (and oftentimes class or perceived class) often develop.
When Sam asks Moses if he’s got a younger sibling after noticing the objects in his apartment, he tells her no. She then follows with asking how old he is. “Fifteen,” he answers. She claims he looks older. Sometimes when life leads to moments of robbery, possession of an illegal substance, and becoming a passenger in the back of a police van, you’re bound to carry the physical markers of maturity. Moses’ scar after the first alien attack brands his exterior antagonistic-yet-warrior persona, the overt mark of battle and socioeconomic strife. And an audience gets the sense that he wears it proudly, but with an emotional burden.
Without giving away plot twists, Moses becomes the anti-hero/hero. Because he wants to be and definitely because he is forced to. His arc preserves not only the limited spatial territory to people of color, but both the hope/future of that neighborhood seen both in the complicated yet potentially fruitful co-existence with an ‘outsider’ like Sam and the two younger moxie fellows in Probs and Mayhem. This narrative fact does not go without acknowledging just about every other character’s hand in kicking/slaying some alien ass. Almost everyone gets their turn to be a hero (male, female, a bit older, young, younger), and that remains an important trope in ensemble films where action is a driving force of the story.
Viewing Attack the Block as nothing but a bunch of kids fighting off aliens simply isn’t enough. It implements quite a few allusions that speak to our current class and racialized conditions. You could even add the issues surrounding the generation gap into that equation for good measure. It is an entertaining, well-paced film that I enjoyed primarily because it was thoughtful. And I’m glad that science-fiction continues to nip at our sense of social consciousness with remarkable storytelling.