Representations of Black Crime in Attack the Block (2011)

Posted on 26/02/2012

Attack the Block

In recent years, the British media has been full of stories of violence and crime committed by working class teenagers, frequently with an emphasis on black youth. This has created a climate of fear against young people, which could be described as something of a ‘moral panic’ – fears of gang culture, hoodie-wearing teenagers, and the emergence of ‘chav’ stereotypes are all indicative of this. Although statistics demonstrate that black crime is a significant issue, (a Telegraph report from 2010 states that out of over 18,000 males in London charged with violent crimes, over 50% of these were from African-Caribbean descent) many theorists criticise the media for its tendencies to dramatize these acts and to exaggerate the frequency in which they are being carried out. The media has also been criticised for failing to explore the potential root causes of the problem sufficiently. In an interesting analysis of black crime portrayals in the media, Okoronkwo suggests that one possible reason for any media bias is the domination of white, middle-class men working for news media outlets. It is safe to assume that the people who govern the media make specific choices about what constitutes interesting news, and that these decisions may be influenced by such social demographics.

Okoronkwo outlines some potential explanations for high levels of black crime: a lack of positive black role models for young people, an increase in single-parent families, and under-achievement in school (which he suggests may be due to institutional racism). A further suggestion is simply that the marginalisation of African-Caribbean people within our society makes it harder to find work, necessitating the need to find an alternative means of income and a way to fill this unoccupied time. Statistics to back these assumptions up are provided in his thesis, but since there are problems present with all of these ideas, it is impossible to reach a firm conclusion on the subject. Okoronkwo also argues that the media’s exaggeration of the problem may in fact create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we keep telling young people that they are all violent criminal offenders, it may influence some teenagers to become involved in the lifestyle that the media expects them to be involved in anyway.

Attack the Block – the first feature film from director Joe Cornish – takes a conventional science-fiction narrative and places it in a south London estate. The film is comparable to films like Kidulthood (2006) which also deals with a group of (predominantly African-Caribbean) teenagers involved in a criminal lifestyle, but couples this with a storyline on aliens attacking Earth. While Cornish acknowledges within the film that crime within this demographic is an issue, he tries to subvert conventional media portrayals by humanizing these characters and making them his protagonists. He attempts to provide some kind of context for the characters, which might provide a justification for their criminality. The film’s compliance with a typical sci-fi plot makes the film more palatable for mainstream audiences, while still getting the intended message across implicitly. An absence of recognisable actors contributes to the realism of the film, as well as the dialogue, which Cornish worked on in collaboration with local youth groups to create an accurate impression of how these characters would really speak.

The opening scene of the film depicts the teenagers as criminals when they mug a young woman, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), stealing her phone, money and jewellery. After this act, the muggers become the protagonists. Cornish aims to remind us that they are ultimately still only children, indicating some possible reasons for why they choose to behave the way that they do. One particular scene towards the end of the film is particularly effective in garnering audience empathy for the teenage characters. Sam visits the apartment of Moses (John Boyega), one member of the gang who initiated the mugging of her earlier in the film, and noticing his Spiderman bed sheets, finally asks his age. He answers that he is 15. This scene is incredibly poignant in the way that it strips away Moses’ macho bravado and reminds the viewer that he is still just a child. We also learn that Moses has a difficult family life; he tells Sam that he lives with his Uncle who is not around much. Bringing this back to Okoronkwo’s argument, this absence of parental discipline and lack of role models might have been provided as one of the reasons for Moses’ criminality. I feel, however, that Cornish could have done much more in the film to humanize the teenagers. Films such as Freedom Writers (2007) are far more effective in provided a detailed back-story for their characters and therefore in creating sympathy for them despite their violent and criminal actions.

Sam is an interesting character to examine within the narrative. During the opening scene, she is the figure that we identify and empathise with when the teenagers mug her. The viewer might assume at this point in the film that she is middle-class – because she is white, well dressed and well spoken. It is revealed later that she in fact lives in the same tower block that the teenagers live in. This serves the dual purpose of challenging stereotypical perceptions of class, and of breaking down the barrier between her character and the others. Whereas at first there was an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, she becomes one of them when they realise that she faces some of the same troubles that they do.

Cornish attempts to address the problems of gang culture via the character of Hi-Hatz, as well as through the science-fiction strand of the storyline. Hi-Hatz is a drug dealer who is heard talking about his ‘territory’, whereas the invasion of the aliens into the teenagers’ neighbourhood provokes similar dialogue about territory and the need to fight to survive. This is reinforced with the line, “walking around, feelin’ like you’re gunna get jumped at any moment… feels just like another day in the ends,” which directly compares the alien invasion to the general feeling of fear and uncertainty which young people in urban locations face on a daily basis. Ideas of institutional racism are also depicted in the film. The group feel that the police and government are out to get them (Moses expresses the theory that the government might have sent the aliens specifically to kill black people), and towards the end of the film we see that the police are perfectly willing to listen to Sam, a well-spoken white woman, but not to the African-Caribbean teenagers who they’re taking away. Cornish appears to support the theory that crime happens due to marginalisation in society. The line “This ain’t got nothing to do with gangs.” “Or drugs, or rap music, or violence in video games,” seemingly rejects other theories.

Whereas Moses starts the film being the villain, he ends it as a ‘hero’. He puts himself at risk to save other people, receives forgiveness from the woman he mugged, and finishes up with a crowd of people chanting his name. It is suggested that the aliens probably only started attacking because Moses killed one first, and this depicts a similar downward spiral as seen in many gang-connected killings. The fact that Moses becomes a hero suggests that needless violence is bad, but that it is justified for these teenagers to defend themselves from aggressors. However, whether you agree with this portrayal of criminals as heroes is a personal moral decision.  

Joe Cornish puts forth a good attempt to challenge media perceptions of criminal youth in Attack the Block but it isn’t quite as effective as it could be. The combination of social-realism, comedy and horror elements means that none of these elements are explored to their full potential. Coming from the producers of Shaun of the Dead (2004), it is disappointing that this film fails to stand up to quite the same levels of comedy and horror, as well as not exploring the back-story and motivations of the characters as fully as it could have done.

Further reading and references:


Okoronkwo explores the phenomena of black youth crime and its media portrayal in the United Kingdom.

Bivigou discusses Attack the Block.

Brooke’s Sight and Sound review of the film.

Crime statistics via The Telegraph.

BBC Article on the word ‘Chav’.

Marsh questions why some crimes make the headlines when other don’t.

Article on ‘postcode wars’ and territorial issues.

Posted in: Films