copyright 2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 56, winter 2014-2015

Attack the Block: monsters, race, and
rewriting South London’s outer spaces

by Lorrie Palmer

"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."
— Moses (John Boyega, Attack the Block)

"The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language."
— Michel de Certeau[1][open endnotes in new window]

One of the first things you notice in the science fiction/comedy hybrid, Attack the Block (Cornish, 2011), is the dizzying patois-slang of the hoodie-wearing gang of youthful muggers menacing the streets around the South London (fictional) Clayton council estate.[2] As with the complex vocabulary and frequently impenetrable pace and pronunciation wielded by the urban poor in HBO’s dialogue-heavy social realism series, The Wire (2002-2008), context often helps de-code the labyrinthine spoken text situated within marginal city spaces. Similarly, it is often the case that the spatial practices enacted within the racialized metropolis are analogous to the spoken word. To an outsider’s ear, a new dialect can be as indecipherable as a map of an unfamiliar city. Just as the characters traverse the city space they inhabit, the spectator likewise navigates the accented slang of Attack the Block. Here are dialogue patterns made deliberately immersive by director Joe Cornish.

Cornish wrote the script after his own real-life mugging by street-tough teens in his native South London and subsequently work-shopped dialogue with his young, largely non-professional cast (some of whom hail from the London borough of Southwark that we see onscreen). Cornish’s stated aim is to teach the audience the language by having his characters repeat a small number of words and phrases throughout the film, acknowledging that even British audiences may not be fluent in its dense urban slang. He notes that the UK has long produced narratives of science fiction and social realism, and he brings the two together in Attack the Block. The conduit for this genre convergence is further linked by Cornish to his impressions of the young teens he encountered in his mugging experience and what they conjured up for him in his memories of cinema, urban setting, and language:

“I thought about it a lot. It made me think about the kids who did it. I thought that they looked weirdly cinematic. They looked like ninjas or bandits in a Western. The bikes they rode looked a bit like something out of ET or the hoverbikes in Return Of The Jedi. The slang they used felt a bit like Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange. And I thought, ‘Here’s a setting that has only been used for depressing social realism, and actually there’s the toolkit for an action adventure here.’”[3]

It is these combined generic traditions that the central teen hero of Cornish’s film simultaneously symbolizes and disrupts. The monster evoked by contemporary media—from cable news to screen fictions—is the young black urban male, a figure of white anxiety and political expediency. He’s linked to violence, drugs, and the steely face of race- and class-based resentments. This guy is never the hero, he never saves the city. But a funny thing happens in Attack the Block: he is, and he does.

Michel de Certeau makes the distinction between rational urban planning characterized by the proscribed circuits and designated uses available to city dwellers and the resistance to these by citizens electing to write their own narratives. Illustrating this distinction, the urban martial art of parkour, in which the built environment is used as an obstacle course for acrobatic running, jumping, and precision rolls, was made mainstream in the French action film, Banlieue 13 (Morel, 2004) and its sequel, Banlieue 13: Ultimatum (Allessandrin, 2009), both films written and produced by Luc Besson and both set in a public housing district. The strength and creativity of such a sport demonstrate a resistant use of city space and was born in the marginal (and racialized) housing projects located at the periphery of Paris. Parkour makes use of the urban landscape as its practitioners run at high speed across and through obstacles—walls, stairwells, landings, windows, rooftops—physicalizing fluid motion in three dimensions. It requires an elegant discipline, epitomized by the spatial mastery and taut fitness of the two central protagonists in the Banlieue films.

In contrast, the public housing inhabitants of Attack the Block demonstrate no such disciplined elegance. The gang of black, white, and mixed-race teens does not gain control of their turf through the assured deployment of muscles. Instead, they go into battle with the improvised toys-as-weapons of adolescence, their collective knowledge of the built environment, and the unlikely, evolving leadership of the most socially-stigmatized among them, the juvenile delinquent, Moses (newcomer John Boyega). To his friends—for whom he takes on a protective role—Moses represents the word of law on their estate.

De Certeau describes the ordinary social processes of exclusion in the policing and surveillance of public space. Official power structures of law and discipline mark out the bodies of people who live on the margins of dominant society by symbolically rendering them as Other. This is done by designating subordinate identities for these inhabitants, reducing them to “something said, called, named,”[4] effectively criminalizing them. Such naming—of delinquency, of dark monsters—is initially the exclusive purview of the institutions and architecture in Attack the Block. Until aliens fall from the sky over South London.

Attack the Block

In a film directed by British comedian-turned-filmmaker, Joe Cornish (in his directorial debut), the alien invasion action of Attack the Block mines similar urban genre territory as John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Escape From New York (1981), Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979), and John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988). It also can be compared to European city-cinema, such as Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995), including the latter’s social commentary on the effects of repressive discrimination and stigmatizing media discourse upon the inhabitants of urban public housing.

The thematic and visual center of Attack the Block is the looming monolithic Wyndham Tower, dotted with blazing exterior lights and dark windows, shot with slow tilts on an extreme low angle to suggest a slate-grey spaceship parked in the wilds of South London. The survival traditions of science fiction—a scrappy band of former enemies works together, a besieged stronghold becomes a living character, and anti-heroes find redemption—frame Cornish’s cinematic city in microcosm. Set on Bonfire Night[5] in the capital, the film maintains its focus on the five young muggers who confront recently-graduated nursing student, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), outside the tower block where they live. The camera stays with them throughout, as they lead it (and us) into the depths of their urban turf. They stand in contrast to, on the one hand, the genuine gangsta hardcase, Hi-Hatz (Jumayne Hunter), whose relatively small-time drug operation nevertheless dominates the community. On the other side, they confront the police, who are predisposed to perceive the poor, the working class, and people of color—particularly teenagers—as disproportionally disruptive.

After her first encounter with Moses’s gang, Sam labels them “monsters,” but once the alien threat becomes clear, she joins with them, recognizing that their skills make them uniquely qualified to help her get out alive. Together they use the corridors, elevators, walkways, stairwells, and individual flats inside the tower block to elude the pursuing aliens as well as Hi-Hatz, who soon emerges as the film’s only human monster. Once his friends begin to die in the ensuing siege of the block, Moses takes responsibility for bringing the aliens into the building and formulates a plan for eliminating them en masse, aided by his remaining gang members, Sam, and a few additional friends inside the tower. His heroic final act—symbolically staged and shot—critiques race and national identity against the culturally-loaded outer space of British urban life: the high-rise tower block emblematic of public housing.

It is in this specific social and spatial context that Cornish foregrounds the tower block teens’ survival instincts, proposing that “people secretly know that, when push comes to shove, a gang like this are gonna be stronger, more together, and more capable to deal with situations”[6] than those who are less familiar with London’s rough edges. Attack the Block upends more than just genre conventions of representation. Its young protagonists rewrite the negative stereotypes linked to poor urban youth in which decay, criminality, and pathology conflate inner city residents with their environment. The gang disrupts the discourses that frame the precise “genre” of city space—public housing—that most reflects their marginal social status within it. Moses wounds the first alien after it crashes through the roof of parked car mere feet away from where the gang is robbing Sam. Led by him, the boys (including Pest, Dennis, Jerome, and Biggz) pursue the alien and kill it, unaware that it has bigger, meaner friends falling right behind it. These deep black neon-fanged predators literalize monstrosity, thereby disconnecting its symbolic stigma from the gang. We can read these monsters as symbolizing the potential danger lurking in the dark corners of public housing, a danger that has long been part of the debate around the social, economic, and political realities of these sites. And it all began with an architectural vision.

Postwar public housing in Britain

Utilizing the rational blueprint of Modernism, the designers and planners of public housing in postwar Britain envisioned a progressive synthesis of efficiency and community during the heyday of high-rise council estates that began during the widespread reconstruction of the period. Driven by the same Modernist urban dreams of Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus School and by the Le Corbusier-inspired International Style pioneered in the 1920s and 1930s, the high-density vertical city was to re-direct urban expansion upward instead of outward. This was the historic moment when old Victorian slums could be cleared and wartime bombed-out neighborhoods razed. The centralized government, with local councils acting as proxy, adopted public housing as the civic and economic centerpiece of the modernized welfare state. Architects channeled the working class and the urban poor through the twinned imperatives of social engineering and institutional beneficence. The 1950s and ‘60s saw affordable housing projects shift from the green zone, low-rise construction of rural Britain’s New Towns[7] toward the high-rise tower blocks of the modern city. Prefabricated concrete panels could be stacked on-site using construction cranes to build higher than old-style scaffolding had previously made possible. The design component of exposed concrete, inside and out, of these mass-produced units was in keeping with the Modernist style and imagined by its supporters to be more honest, eschewing decorative flourishes. Concrete was inexpensive, flexible, and believed to be nearly indestructible.

These practices were epitomized by two London architects, Alison and Peter Smithson. Their style, which they called New Brutalism in 1954, comprised a warehouse aesthetic, an exposed exterior paired with an unadorned interior. British architectural theorist, Reyner Banham, notes that critics of New Brutalism

“complained of the deliberate flouting of the traditional concepts of photographic beauty, of a cult of ugliness, and ‘denying the spiritual in Man.’”[8]

The result, not surprisingly, precipitated the necessarily cold affect of glass, steel, and concrete. The artistic and architectural rhetoric of the Modernist movement was itself a form of language, organized around the combined impacts of social engineering and style, as the designers’ intent was conflated with a perceived logical outcome. The conceptual disconnect within the Modernist aesthetic was that it was detached from living space. British planners and architects were influenced by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation housing development in Marseille (1947-1952) and its aspirational “streets in the sky.” James Donald remarks that Le Corbusier

“made the unwarranted deduction that planned changes in that environment would be sufficient to produce predictable changes in people’s perceptions, mental life, habits, and conduct.”[9]

Aesthetics were therefore causally linked to social organization. The UK high-rises of the 1950s-1960s were discursively and visually situated around

“image-making, that large Modern blocks were always photographed and seen as ‘images.’ But the blocks, and their images, consistently served as signs of ‘progress,’ and thus there appeared to be a strong correspondence between visual and factual elements.”[10]

The Smithsons considered this imagery a metaphor for the community-building they believed would result from Brutalist designs, but image alone is far removed from experience (particularly once race and class are taken into account). A Modernist warehouse aesthetic makes sense in public exhibition spaces where pure image matters, but the lived reality of such materials is more prosaic in its dailiness, discomfort and, eventually, its decay.

Far from the pristine whiteness that the postwar planners and architects imagined for their concrete utopias, the reality is that cracking, chipping, and staining from air pollution inevitably accompany the oppressively grey dampness of concrete, especially as it deteriorates over time. Concrete’s postwar image as a miracle material for the future eventually shifted to the realization that it gave city dwellers instead what Andrew Burke describes as

“the feel of cold incarceration, of subordinating those within it to the state’s desire for rationality and modernity.”[11]

This disillusionment toward tower blocks reached its apex in public consciousness in 1968, when a tenant in the two-month old Ronan Point council estate in Newham, East London lit her gas stove. The resulting explosion, caused by a small leak in a substandard brass nut connecting the stove to the gas hose, knocked her unconscious, blew out the load-bearing wall of her living room, and collapsed a whole corner of the 22-story structure, killing four people and injuring 17 other residents. There was a chain reaction as the weight of each floor collapsed the one below it. The collapse resulted from earlier fundamental design flaws, dearth of skilled construction workers, and post-war boom in cheap precast concrete components—as well as lack of central support structures in the building. Only a year earlier in 1967, the government had discontinued its incentivizing policies toward tower block construction—initiated by the Housing Subsidies Act of 1956—which had stipulated that the greater the number of floors, the higher the subsidies. The writing and not just graffiti was on the wall.

Politicians and the media routinely focus on the exterior deterioration of tower blocks, creating in the public imaginary a symbolic association with social problems in contemporary British cities. However, this representation often masks a more general underlying antipathy toward the poor, working class, and immigrant populations housed at these sites. It also aims to justify pulling down the blocks to make way for privatized redevelopment schemes rather than restore the existing dwellings and provide consistent on-site maintenance and management. South London council estates like Aylesbury and the Heygate (a primary shooting location for Attack the Block) have become symbols of urban blight and the failed social engineering of postwar housing policies. The discourses in tabloid and mainstream media brand the residents and their communities as deviant, criminal, or abnormal.

For example, the public literature around the Aylesbury estate has been examined by Loretta Lees, who finds that social inequality becomes synonymous in the public eye with a stigmatizing defect in the built environment. This kind of naming, or branding, is then used to build public support for the forced gentrification of an estate like Aylesbury, popularly known as “Hell’s Waiting Room.”[12] Film crews have pumped money into Southwark Council coffers to shoot at Aylesbury, exploiting and perpetuating its reputation as a “sink estate.”[13] Entertainment fictions such as the Michael Caine vigilante thriller, Harry Brown (Barber, 2009) as well as popular TV crime series like The Bill (ITV, 1984-2010) and Spooks (BBC, 2002-20011) have used it as a backdrop. Channel 4 famously deployed an image of its bleak upper floors as a logo, something the residents[14] of the estate deeply resented, particularly since, as The Guardian reported:

“The washing lines, the shopping trolley filled with rubbish bags and the many satellite dishes, were all artificial embellishments added in by film-makers.”[15]

What these PR campaigns, news programs, and film and television narratives discount—besides the tenants’ real-world experiences—is that, whatever their graffitied exteriors might suggest, these estates can and do signify community. Dystopianism may sell, but in the “hot, fierce, funny, vicious and ready to bite”[16] action of Attack the Block, alienation trumps Alien Nation.

Monsters, race, and the tower block

Often underlying stigmatizing representations of the residents of urban public housing is a polarization along race and class lines, particularly through the exclusionary tropes of nationalism. In juxtaposition with the concrete citadel of Wyndham Tower, the hooded masked gang in Attack the Block initially seems to support negative media stereotypes of violence and criminality. The social inequalities linked to place in media discourses have tended to support the racism embedded within a dominant ideology of national identity—and its colonialist history. However, in her examination of postcolonial British comedies, Sarah Ilott outlines a parody of media stereotypes (specifically, of gang members) in Attack the Block. She notes that the film undermines these by framing the teen protagonists’ particular urban Britishness against even more extreme Others: super-black alien invaders. Thus, the film sets up its

“black characters as inherently British rather than Britain’s Other, challenging the way that racist rhetoric attempts to position those of non-white ethnicity.”[17]

The film also challenges the boundaries of citizenship by spatializing those boundaries through the tower block’s characteristic architecture. Ironically, a containment inherent to the design of the Wyndham Tower—its corridors, exterior walkways, and its elevators and stairwells—ultimately helps Moses and his friends save their neighbors and their city from alien invasion. Attack the Block breaks from the type of cinematic representation of what Kenneth Chan calls “the ghetto, the hood, and/or the housing project as spatial constructs, hegemonic devices of control and containment”[18] in films like John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991) by having the film’s characters use the confined location to their advantage.

After the mugging, a shaken Sam flees home while the gang embarks on a Boys’ Own adventure tracking and killing the alien wounded by Moses. They carry it around the neighborhood as a trophy, proudly proclaiming, “This is the block and nobody fucks with the block!” Their positive conflation of self and place are in clear contrast to the stigma of deviance and failure promoted in public rhetoric toward the urban poor and their marginalized communities. The teens imagine the tabloid fame and eBay profit that will result from their capture of an extraterrestrial monster.

While they plan their future, they stash the corpse in the 19th floor flat of local pot-dealer and affable stoner, Ron (Nick Frost), because his fortified “weed room” is the most secure location in the building. From Ron’s window, they see more bright streaks begin to fall from the sky, blending with the citywide fireworks. They disperse excitedly to their own flats to grab up a variety of makeshift weapons—an aluminum baseball bat, a samurai sword, and an arsenal of explosive fireworks—then race on bikes and mopeds to the nearest crash site. Finding a dead alien in the rubble of one of these, they realize that the new creatures—inky black and resembling a wolf-gorilla hybrid with bioluminescent fangs—are much bigger than the small, hairless alien that Moses first encountered inside the destroyed car. Sure enough, these more dangerous and aggressive predators begin to emerge from the dark spaces around the estate and pursue the teens.

The camera frames the ensuing chase scene three-dimensionally. From an extreme high angle through deep vertical space, we see an overhead perspective of the elevated walkways cutting sharp diagonals around the tower block as well as shots from low angles at pavement level. Biggz, who had earlier bet his friends that he could make the vertiginous leap between an upper and lower level walkway, is now forced to do so, executing a frantic parkour leap to escape his monstrous pursuers. He then takes refuge in a nearby trash bin where he will remain trapped by a single determined alien for most of the film. He uses his cell phone to tell his friends that he is in “the same bin I was in that time them boys from Aylesbury were after me.” In the meantime, everyone else is following Moses’s directive to “get off the street, back in the block” by foot, moped, and bicycle.

As they scatter, they draw the attention of a police van whose officers grab Moses, cuff him, and show him to Sam, along for the ride to help identify her muggers. After he is locked inside, two monsters attack the van and kill the officers. These deaths, which the authorities attribute to Moses and his gang, result in a tight cordon of the block by armed police who remain unaware of the alien invasion going on inside. Also blind to the imminent threat posed by the aliens—after he shoots and easily kills one—is Hi-Hatz, who single-mindedly trails the teens for what he believes to be their challenge to his dominance: “This is my block.” Thus, the outside forces’ illusion of control is shown through both Hi-Hatz’ and the police’s misperceiving the deep bonds of community among Moses and his friends and also not understanding tactical possibilities enabled by the design of the tower block itself.

In her discussion of causal relations between the design of public housing, criminality, and youth activities, Alice Coleman (1984) focuses on three design components that facilitate criminal behavior and make it impossible for tenants to protect their territory. The blocks enable anonymity (criminals do not want to be known), lack of surveillance (criminals do not want to be seen), and alternative escape routes (criminals prefer to elude capture).[19] Most of the action in Attack the Block takes place in the characteristic locales described by Coleman, but these spaces get rewritten. The characters define the spaces, not the other way around. This is as De Certeau has theorized: no space has an essential identity in itself; it only acquires meaning once activated by human motion occurring within it. The elevated walkways around Wyndham Tower provide anonymity and inhibit surveillance from the streets below. And the building’s long interior corridors extend that privacy, even as its elevators and stairways provide vertical escape routes at every floor. This film destabilizes the rhetorical alienation of tower blocks as symbols of urban decay and deviance by showing us the domestic spaces of all the characters, even gaining some sense of their familial support systems.

As each teen runs to his flat to “tool up,” he moves through clean, warm-hued, comfortably-appointed residential interiors—not the unadorned slabs of New Brutalism. Set designer Marcus Roland worked from real life; he gave cameras to the young cast members so they could photograph their own homes and bedrooms, which he used as reference material for this sequence. For example, passing his grandmother on the sofa, Pest (Alex Esmail) pauses to kiss the top of her head after fetching a bat and fireworks. Bespectacled Jerome (Leeon Jones) encounters his sister and her friends studying for exams. Biggz (Simon Howard) promises his mother, who is making dinner in a brightly-lit kitchen, that he will be back in ten minutes. Before Dennis (Franz Drameh) can leave with the samurai sword from his bedroom, he acquiesces—with perfect teenage exasperation—to his father’s demand to take Pogo, the family dog, out with him. The only home we do not see during this early sequence is Moses’ since Cornish wants us to get to know him better before we see the personal environment of the gang’s stoic leader. The film and its characters rewrite the inner and outer spaces of the block by effectively subverting expectations about juvenile criminality, framing these instead as sites for heroism, sacrifice, and communal allegiance across race and gender.

This framing is aligned with being seen and being known in the block. We hear Sam’s voice-over describing the gang to the police while the camera aims down the long axis of an interior corridor where the five teenagers appear. She explains what they were wearing but when asked if she saw their faces replies, “No, they had hoods and scarves.” That anonymity situates the gang as faceless, stereotypical public-housing trouble-makers, a characterization that the film immediately begins to dismantle. For the young actors (and the director), this was the goal of Attack the Block, as they discuss it on the DVD’s accompanying commentary. Franz Drameh (Dennis) remarks that the film initially “highlights the media’s stereotype of what a gang is and what a gang does.”[20] Luke Treadaway, who plays Brewis, a white middle-class university student and customer of Ron’s, extends that observation by noting that the teens

“start with their hoods. That’s maybe the metaphor and they start with masks and you can’t see them and so they become, you know, the way that we’re presented with them in the newspapers—a masked, knife-wielding youth.”[21]

Jumayne Hunter (Hi-Hatz) continues:

“People get stereotyped all the time, especially like me, the way I dress, stuff like that, depending on what day, if I put my hood up, I’m instantly stereotyped. And that’s how most of the kids are in this but, as soon as the aliens come, they get a chance to show their true character.”[22]

This demolishing of common ideological associations around “urban poverty” begins when the audience starts seeing the teens clearly, stripped of the anonymity of stereotypes and facilitated by the camera and by the tower block itself.

The design of the block’s corridors includes a light switch at either end, which a person about to enter that dark space can use to turn on the overhead lights. As the gang enters the frame, they hit the switch. The thematic and visual effect is that the lights turn on incrementally as the boys advance toward the camera; they bring the light with them as they get closer and thus become more visible. The active motion of advancing/receding light or darkness through the film’s multiple corridor scenes signals the shifting relationships between the characters as well as our perceptions of them. After the attack on the police van, the gang encounters Sam returning to her flat. They force their way in behind her, with a wounded Pest begging her to fix his bitten leg—having learned from her stolen purse that she is a nurse. She reluctantly agrees to do that and listens with disbelief as they promise her: “There’s worse things to be afraid of than us tonight, trust!” This is borne out when an alien rams Sam’s door trying to get in.

What they do not realize is that in attacking the first (female) alien, Moses was splattered with the creature’s pheromones, which the sightless males are now tracking by scent; all the teens have at least some of the substance on their clothing. Sam, still dubious, demands to be left out of their gang issues. Pest is relieved to still have the use of his leg for running away from the monsters and answers her by acknowledging how he and his friends are characterized in dominant discourse. He assures her this is not about gangs, “Or drugs, or rap music, or violence in video games,” he adds. When the alien bursts into the flat, Moses kills it with a sword while Sam runs for the corridor. The darkness follows her away from the camera as she turns back to see the gang come out of her flat—as growls and high-pitched echolocation screeches from offscreen monsters reverberate through the corridor—and she returns to join them. They make themselves known here, giving each other their names, and rewriting the anonymous corridor as a site of community.

The group uses the tower’s elevators and stairwells to move between floors as another corridor scene speaks to the film’s insistence on the invasion’s life-and-death consequences to that community. Moses fires explosive shells from a roman candle down the hallway to clear it of aliens. Amidst the resulting thick smoke, Jerome becomes disoriented, falls, and loses his glasses. When they realize that their friend is missing, Pest shouts, “Lights, man, lights! I’m going back, stay by the lights.” But it is too late and Jerome is torn away from Pest by alien attackers just before Sam returns and pulls Pest to safety. With Moses, they escape up to the 19th floor and Ron’s flat where Hi-Hatz lays in wait. The only character in the film with a gun, Hi-Hatz points it at Moses—blaming him for bringing both the aliens and “the fed” to his block—while making a fatal tactical error: Hi-Hatz’s back is to the balcony. The dozen predators who crash through the glass behind Hi-Hatz send Moses and his friends running for the sanctity of the weed room while Hi-Hatz is shredded by the only monsters more vicious than he.

Under the UV lights of the weed room, Brewis, though claiming himself to be “profoundly stoned,” nevertheless calls upon his university education and incessant viewing of nature documentaries to identify the now-visible neon splatters on Moses’ jacket, telling the others that these appear to be evidence of

“an eco-hormone that triggers a social response… like bees, like beetles, like moths.”

This information moves Moses to realize that his actions precipitated the attacks that killed both Dennis and Jerome and put the whole block at risk. John Boyega conveys Moses’ depths by gradually stripping him of his fearsome stillness and slowly revealing the vulnerability of the character. In this regard, one film review singled out Moses as a “strong, silent, outlaw gunslinger type, transported into an urban setting”[23] while the actor himself says that he watched season four of The Wire, particularly the teenage Michael Lee (Tristan Wilds) to capture the silence of that inner-city youth. When Moses does speak, it is with the authority of a natural leader, despite what we find here to be his unexpected age of 15.

Contemplating the events of the night with Sam and Pest sitting nearby, he says,  “Wish I’d never chased after that thing. Wish we’d never merked you.” He makes Pest give Sam back a ring they took from her and tells her, “Listen, yeah, we never knew you lived in the block. If we knew you, we wouldn’t have stepped you.” Sam pushes back: “It would’ve been OK to mug me if I didn’t live here, is that how it works?” It is being known that marks community for Moses, and despite his stung silence at Sam’s rebuke, he clearly regrets his actions. He talks to Brewis about the pheromones on his clothes, concluding that by using these as a weapon,

“Maybe I can lead them…somewhere I can blow them up. I killed that thing. I brought them in the block. I’ve got to finish what I started.”

Strapping the dead alien on his back, he makes what director Cornish calls his “hero run.”[24] Aided by the throbbing electronic score of house music duo Basement Jaxx and composer Steven Price and by the slow motion cinematography of Thomas Townend, Boyega/Moses transforms himself into the urban hero of science fiction cinema, albeit one embodied by a black teenager from a South London public housing block. He vaults over the aliens in Ron’s flat as they pick up his scent. Moses slams against the landing wall, bounds down the stairs, then sprints through the long corridor with a pack of deep black monsters on his heels.

Moses’s unbroken passage through these spaces links the interior design components of the tower block both thematically and spatially. Before he can make this run he sends Sam, who has no pheromones on her clothes, down one floor to his flat. She slips through the aliens lingering outside the weed room and, talking to Moses on a cell phone, arrives at his door. As she walks through his rooms, she (and we) witness the only shabby domestic space occupied by any of the gang members and, noticing a Spider-man duvet on an unmade bed and numerous take-out food containers, she asks him his age. When he tells her, she remarks, “You look older.” In response, his voice resonates with a quiet “Thanks.” Sam follows his instructions: leave the front door open, turn the oven’s gas on full, and get out of the building. As Moses leads the monsters into his flat, he flings the dead alien into the kitchen, lights his last rocket, aims it at the mass of black bodies and, in the fiery gas explosion that follows, dives off his balcony grabbing onto the large Union Jack hanging from the railing. Lit by the searchlight from an overhead police helicopter, Moses grips the flag, his flag, while the block’s residents gathered outside look up at him in shock.

Still not realizing that the building is full of dead aliens, the police finally enter the tower block and find Moses in a bloody elevator, with two Hi-Hatz henchmen ripped to shreds behind him, sawn-off cuffs on his wrists, and a sword in his hand. He stands in dark silhouette, the camera tilts upward as the riot-armored police shine flashlights in his face. His expression passes from wary hope to resignation to a forced blankness when he realizes that, although he now sees himself differently, they do not. Outside, Sam is asked to identify the gang who mugged her and killed the two policemen earlier in the evening. This culminates in the continued reification of his British identity within the outer spaces of South London—where the police maintain a conspicuous absence and an orphaned 15-year old like Moses robs to survive. Outside, Sam is asked to identify the gang who mugged her and killed the two policemen earlier in the evening. She points to the handcuffed Moses and Pest and corrects the commanding officer, saying,

“Those boys over there, the ones you’re arresting, I know them. They’re my neighbors. They protected me.”

Joe Cornish turns the discursively devalued city space of Attack the Block to redemptive ends by associating the gang’s localized speech with the film’s shooting location and the characteristic design of high-rise public housing in Britain. He says it is a

“South London thing where kids actually pronounce all the vowels and consonants a bit more than they do in North London. In some films, tower blocks and estates are presented as these symbols of urban decay but we tried to do something different with this film and make the block into a sci-fi playground.”[25]

His explicit reference to social realism within a framework of science fiction—a genre in which the Other is traditionally a literal monster—distinguishes truly alien blackness—cinematically enhanced by visual effects so the monsters do not reflect light—from non-white British citizenship. In a study (2000) of young UK working-class and multiracial residents of public housing, researchers found that what the kids value most is “being known.”[26] Early in Attack the Block the camera pans across a brick wall at the periphery of the estate where the names of the teens we are about to meet are written in a tight cluster of graffiti. The outer spaces of South London are thus inscribed by its inner-city youth—now seen, known, named—in parallel with the cinematic rewriting of concrete brutalism as urban community.


1. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), page 97. [return to text]

2. Council estates are government-built public housing.

3. “Joe Cornish on Attack the Block,” Short List, http://www.shortlist.com/entertainment/

4. Michel de Certeau, p. 140.

5. Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, is celebrated in Great Britain every November 5 to commemorate the event in which a plot to blow up the British Parliament and kill King James I in 1605 was foiled. Fireworks, bonfires, and effigies of the chief plotter, Guy Fawkes, are part of the festivities.

5. Attack the Block, DVD Commentary, 2011.

7. Publically funded by a central government and local councils, New Towns in the UK were developed in the green belts of cheap land around urban centers to house middle- or working-class residents moving out of the cities or to alleviate urban overcrowding. The “garden city” ideal of low population density and livable space drove the concept of these suburban developments. In the UK, New Towns were primarily built between the 1940s-1960s, originally established to help rebuild post-war Britain through these semi-rural housing projects.

8. Reyner Banham, “The New Brutalism,” October 136 (Spring 2011), page 21.

9. James Donald, “The City, The Cinema: Modern Spaces,” Visual Culture, Ed. by Chris Jenks (London: Routledge, 1995), page 89.

10. Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), page 310.

11. Andrew Burke, “Concrete Universality: Tower Blocks, Architectural Modernism, and Realism in Contemporary British Cinema” New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 5.3 (November 2007), page 179.

12. Hugh Muir, “Deliberately Demoralising,” The Guardian 17 May 2005,

13. Loretta Lees, “The Urban Injustices of New Labour’s ‘New Urban Renewal’: The Case of the Aylesbury Estate in London,” Antipode 0.9 (2013), page 8.

14. In 2014, the residents of the Aylesbury estate enlisted the help of director, Nick Street, to shoot a video response to the grim Channel 4 ident from a decade earlier. Christopher Beanland describes it:

“The upbeat film follows the same trajectory as the original ident, but shows a selection of happy residents, representing the estate's many ethnic communities, playing and chatting. The buildings appear cleaner and better kept. It evokes pleasantly propagandist state-funded films of the past such as Living At Thamesmead and the Milton Keynes Red Balloon advert – both of which used social realism to portray everyday people as heroes making the best use of estates and new towns.”

See his article, “Channel 4's Aylesbury estate ident gets a revamp – starring the residents,” at The Guardian 14 March 2014, along with link to both videos here:

15. Charlotte Benstead, “South London estate residents hit back over negative Channel 4 images,” The Guardian 23 January 2014,

16. Peter Travers, “Attack the Block,” Rolling Stone 28 July 2011,

17. Sarah Ilott, “‘We are the martyrs, you’re just squashed tomatoes!’: Laughing through the Fears in Postcolonial British Comedy: Chris Morris’s Four Lions and Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block,” Postcolonial Text 8.2 (2013), page 3.

18. Kenneth Chan, “The Construction of Black Identity in Black Action Films of the Nineties,” Cinema Journal 37.2 (Winter 1998), page 43.

19. Alice Coleman, “Design Influences in Blocks of Flats,” The Geographical Journal 150.3 (November 1984), page 351.

20. Attack the Block, DVD Commentary, 2011.

21. Attack the Block, DVD Commentary, 2011.

22. Attack the Block, DVD Commentary, 2011.

23. Kofi Outlaw, review of Attack the Block, 30 July 2011 Screen Rant, 22 February 2014,

24. Attack the Block, DVD Commentary, 2011.

25. Attack the Block, DVD Commentary, 2011.

26. Diane Reay and Helen Lucey, “‘I Don’t Really Like It Here but I Don’t Want to be Anywhere Else’: Children and Inner City Council Estates,” Antipode 32.4 (2000), page 422.

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