Aerial view of the Heygate council estate (2009), a primary shooting location for Attack the Block. Its exteriors were also used for World War Z (2013) and a 1st season episode of the BBC One crime drama, Luther (2010). It is currently under demolition to make way for the “regeneration” of the Elephant & Castle area, its remaining residents relocated far outside London.

One tower block of the Heygate…

 …and its elevated exterior walkways, visible in the monster vs. teen chase sequence in Attack the Block.

Michael Caine in Harry Brown (2009), shot at the nearby Aylesbury estate.

The infamous dystopian 2004 Channel 4 ident (logo), embellished in post-production with washing lines, trash, and satellite dishes. The residents were not pleased, so…

…they countered with a video in which they collaborated with director Nick Street to reveal their council estate as a community (starring themselves), rather than as an urban wasteland. Both videos can be seen here: http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2014/mar/14/channel-4-aylesbury-estate-ident-revamped

Britain riots in the summer of 2011 (same year as release of Attack the Block)…

…as the media fanned the flames with images of masked, hooded teens…

…burning down the nation itself. The flag in this image finds an ironic counterpoint in the climactic action sequence with Moses (John Boyega) in Attack the Block.


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][open endnotes in new window]

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 is 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.

Go to page 3: a visual essay

To topPrint versionJC 56 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.