Tagged: Subculture: The Meaning of Style

Toward a block defended by boys and girls

I finally saw Joe Cornish’s science-fiction social comedy Attack the Block a few weekends back. And I mean, wow. Earlier this year, I tweeted that Kelly Reichardt Meek’s Cutoff deserved the Criterion treatment (and Kristen at Dear Black Woman, promptly called bullshit). Well, I don’t want to compare two very different movies, but Attack the Block might be my favorite movie of this year, edging out Meek‘s and Joe Wright’s underrated, superfun Hanna.

Part of what worked with Attack the Block was Steven Price and Basement Jaxx’s music. Following the Chemical Brothers’ propulsive, outsize work for Hanna, Block‘s score strengthens comparisons to John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 with its frenetic pace, ominous bass, and treble-heavy synth flourishes that ramp up the suspense. Music is also used to hail certain characters and orient the audience to their subjectivities, particularly for hipster stoner Brewis (Luke Treadaway). This follows British film and television efforts with similar investment in contemporary pop music, like Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and the British TV series Misfits, which made good use of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up,” and especially Wiley’s “Wearing My Rolex” in its first season.

Extending the Carpenter comparison further, Block has some of the smartest, saddest, most bleakly funny commentary about urban blight, disenfranchised youth, and the cancerous effects of institutional racism. Hua Hsu linked the film to last summer’s London riots. The night-black, neon-fanged, fuzzy alien invaders Block‘s South London street gang defend themselves against works as a metaphor for law enforcement’s destructive efforts and lowered expectations of a multicultural youth aggregate they are grooming for incarceration. Leader Moses (star-in-the-making John Boyega) says as much at one point, comparing the monsters to the crack epidemic, which was politically engineered in the 1980s to target and destroy the urban poor. To me, Block‘s monsters also recall the mute black alien in John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet and the silencing power of racial stereotypes in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. These monsters remind the gang of society’s racist expectations for them and have no regard for their home. They must be destroyed, even if it means cruel casualties from within the ranks (RIP and an avalanche of tears, Jerome). The cops reward their restorative efforts by arresting them for murder and vandalism. History, and hopefully the community, promise an intervention. Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a white female neighbor, reports their innocence and a crowd of young people chant Moses’ name. I remained hopeful of their exoneration through the credits, even though my eyes were full of tears.

Block also reminds me of is Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine, a French film about three male friends of Jewish, African, and Moroccan heritage who struggle to survive in the banlieues. The points of similarity are fairly superficial. The characters identify strongly with hip hop, perhaps due in part to the constant threat of police brutality, which is reflected in both films’ music and dialogue. Both films also make a concerted effort to note racial and ethnic differences between the characters, as well as contextualize and develop those differences as something beyond problematically labeled “local color” or “flavor.”

The girls on the Block (from left): Dimples (Paige Meade), Tia (Danielle Vitalis), Gloria (Natasha Jonas), and Dionne (Gina Antwi)

A possible point of departure for me, though, is the films’ consideration for women. Not unlike Dick Hebdige’s influential Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Kassovitz’s vision of urban youth is one that ignores women and girls fulfilling anything but an ornamental or maternal role subordinate to their lovers and sons. Block makes some consideration for the gang’s female counterparts. Sure, two of the actresses go unbilled, merely cast to bicker with the boys and braid their hair. But Tia (Danielle Vitalis) and Dimples (Paige Meade) are two girls of color who differentiate themselves by voicing opinion, offering concern, and getting involved with killing the monsters. I cheered at Dimples resourcefulness when she stabbed one of them with her ice skate. Furthermore, Sam’s character undergoes some interesting transformations. A young nurse who is new to the neighborhood, Sam originally views the boys as adversaries after they mug her. But after circumstances require her to work with them, she recognizes their humanity and the ways in which society wants them to fail. Thus her claim of the boys’ innocence to the police at the end of the film is a small triumph, and further suggests the film’s rich, discursive interests surrounding age, gender, race, and class and the power of resistive politics. Not a bad start for an 90-minute monster movie.