Black Boyhood Under Threat in ‘Attack the Block’ (2011)

Between 2005 – 2010, “Broken Britain” became the go-to catchphrase of the Conservative Party. It wasn’t the first time a politician described Britain as fundamentally damaged — and it certainly wouldn’t be the last — but there was a ring of truth to it.

Apathy seemed to be on the rise, alongside poverty, which particularly grew after the 2008 recession. British tabloid The Sun even began a series entitled “Broken Britain” in 2007, which took great delight in obsessing over everything wrong with the country, publishing headlines such as ‘Ban on Devil Kid, 10’, ‘Shop a Yob’ and ‘Knife thug wrecked my whole life’. It soon became clear that the media had picked a scapegoat: they chose to blame the British working class – especially inner city youths – for the growing anti-social behaviour and rising crime rates.

It didn’t take long for this outlook to make its way into British cinema and thus, the sub-genre “hoodie horror” was born. Hoodie horror typically featured middle-class individuals or families under attack from deadly working-class “chavs” — meaning “council housed and violent” — always decked out in hoodies and committing unspeakable acts without motive or remorse. 

Examples of “hoodie horror” such as Eden Lake (2008), F (2010) and Cherry Tree Lane (2010) encouraged classist and racist stereotypes already perpetuated by the reactionary conservative politics of late 2000s Britain. The working class were depicted as inherently uncivilised and violent: there was no interest in exploring the societal conditions, such as austerity and inequality, that pushed these people to lives of crime. An industry that once produced social realist filmmakers like Ken Loach, Alan Clarke and Mike Leigh had seemingly turned its back on the working class. 

Then Attack the Block (2011) crash-landed into British cinema. 

Attack the Block is the directorial debut of Joe Cornish, a former radio host and one half of the comedy duo Adam and Joe. After becoming the victim of a carjacking, Cornish found the experience so surreal that he imagined how it would play out as a movie and later developed it into a sci-fi premise that asked, “how would a gang of teenagers handle an alien invasion?”. 

The distinct B-movie plot does just this. After killing an alien that crashes into their neighbourhood, a group of South London teenagers unwittingly become the target of an extraterrestrial threat. Teaming up with neighbour Sam (Jodie Whittaker) and local stoner Brewis (Luke Treadaway), the gang have to fight to protect their home and community. 

Our main characters — Pest (Alex Esmail), Biggz (Simon Howard), Jerome (Leeon Jones), Dennis (Franz Drameh) and Moses (John Boyega) — are introduced by a mural of graffiti proudly depicting their names. Next thing we know, they are mugging local nurse Sam. If Attack the Block was like any other hoodie horror, the character development would have ended there, yet the film goes to great lengths to show that this one bad act does not define the teenagers. 

Image is from 'Attack on the Block' (2011). A group on teenagers wearing black coats ride through a lit subway at night in a rush to get somewhere.
Image courtesy of TMDB

The first impression of the boys as young criminals is subverted over the course of the film by constantly reinforcing the immaturity of its protagonists. For example, when the boys walk back after the attack, they joke with each other and try to impress a local group of girls. They don’t seem to have any awareness of the weight of their crime, nor how distressing it was to Sam, illustrating not only how desensitised they are but their juvenile approach to life. While the film doesn’t excuse the mugging, it is clear that these teenagers are too acclimatised to violence due to their surroundings and therefore, they initially fail to comprehend the damage of their actions. 

It is crucial to note that Moses leads the gang into committing the most important reckless acts of the film. Firstly, he is the ringleader when the boys mug Sam. Secondly, it’s his decision to follow the female alien and beat it to death, unintentionally making the group a target for the male aliens. Not only does this set the plot in motion, but it provides Moses with his chance for redemption. 

In contemporary society, black boys like Moses are still often seen as less innocent and older than their white peers. They are robbed of the chance to just be boys through systematic discrimination. Anti-black racism is usually viewed through an American perspective but modern British history is just as steeped in this kind of discrimination. For example, Afro-Caribbean children were overwhelmingly represented at schools for the “educationally subnormal” during the 1970s. Racial profiling by London’s Metropolitan police is now so bad that young black men in London are nineteen times more likely to be stopped and searched. The fates of black teenagers such as nineteen-year-old Julian Cole and eighteen-year-old Mzee Mohammed-Daley exemplify how dangerous and even fatal this level of over-policing can be.

As a working class black teenager, Moses bears the brunt of multiple kinds of discrimination. These unfair expectations certainly burden him, as he is desperate to be seen as mature and hardened. He commits criminal acts such as mugging Sam or agreeing to run drugs for local gangster Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) in a misguided attempt to win over his peers, believing toughness will bring him respect.  

The lack of parental guidance in Moses’ life is also transparent. The film’s sci-fi elements are used as an extreme metaphor not only for the relentless dangers the teenagers face as inner-city, black and mixed race working class kids, but to illustrate how self-sufficient they’ve had to become. Moses rejects authority to the point where he suggests that the aliens are the latest invention designed to decimate kids like him: 

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.”

While we never find out where the aliens came from, this observation shows how much of a shell Moses has built up in order to protect himself. With no positive role models around, he has become distrustful of any establishment or adult because he understands they only see him as a future crime statistic. 

In this sense, the boys are more equipped to deal with the alien threat than the white, more middle class characters like Sam and Brewis. They are clearly exposed to crime and violence in their daily life and think nothing of storing weapons under their beds, as we see when they all go home to “tool up” against the alien invasion. As Ron remarks earlier in the film, they think nothing of “kicking [the alien’s] head in”. However, they are not invincible: the later deaths of Jerome and Dennis are a reminder that they are still boys dealing with something far more dangerous than them. Biggz even gets stuck in a bin for most of the film and has to be rescued by a pair of nine-year-olds. 

Despite his initial careless actions, Moses is ultimately the heart of the film. In the film’s making of documentary, Boyega accurately summarised Moses as “a good kid in bad circumstances”. Attack the Block sympathetically portrays him as an introverted and insecure teen out of his depth, reacting to the world’s negative perception of him. In fact, all of the boys are portrayed as funny, likeable and incredibly tight-knit as a group. Moses especially is shown to be quick-thinking, secretly sensitive and fiercely loyal but it’s clear that he acts out to cope with his rough environment.

Image is from 'Attack on the Block' (2011). A group of teenagers on various bikes stand in the middle of a dark road and look shocked at something in front of them. Behind them, a blue light glows.
Image courtesy of TMDB

However, it is only when Moses faces the consequences of his actions that he truly becomes a hero who earns the respect of his peers. In killing the first female alien that landed, he unwittingly covers himself with pheromones which keep attracting the aggressive male aliens that chase him and his friends. In realising that he is partially responsible for the night’s events, Moses devises a plan where he willingly risks his life to destroy the creatures. 

As part of this plan, Sam has to let herself into Moses’ previously unseen flat and comes across what appears to be a kid’s bedroom with Spiderman bed sheets. She asks Moses, “How old are you?”, to which he answers, “I’m fifteen”. The revelation that Moses is in fact only fifteen has the impact it does due to the audience and Sam’s racial bias. Despite his moments of vulnerability, the audience on some level buys into Moses’ facade because we are conditioned to view black boys as less innocent, especially if they are from a lower socio-economic class. The film understands this, and utilises it to create a hard-hitting moment. 

It is notable that the authorities within the film are constantly depicted as being one step behind and wrongly identifying the gang as the cause of the mayhem. Despite Moses killing the aliens and single handedly saving the block, the police arrest him alongside Pest and Brewis. Even Sam comes to his defence when the police encourage her to identify the boys as perpetrators, stating “they’re my neighbours… they protected me”. The film recognises that while what Moses did was heroic, it is unlikely that groups like the police will ever stop vilifying him. 

However, the remaining residents of the block begin to chant Moses’ name in protest, knowing that he was the one that saved them. This is the first time we see Moses smile because he knows that he has finally received the validation he was searching for. In a way, it doesn’t matter how the outside world perceives him when he has the acceptance of the block. 

Attack the Block stands the test of time for its kinder portrayal of inner city, working class kids and its understanding of their struggles whilst living in a world that constantly judges them. While films of this period usually demonised anyone from this background, Attack the Block chose to show the potential of kids like Moses by centering him as the film’s hero and offering him a redemption arc. The strong social commentary and positive depiction of black male teenagers is what sets this film apart from other stereotypical “hoodie horrors”, making it essential viewing ten years on. 

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