It is a weekday morning, we are sitting in the window of a coffee shop on a north London high street. We is three of us, me, my friend and my friend's dad. This coffee shop has big windows the kind you sit in when you're in the mood to watch the world shuffle by. We sit, we watch, we drink sugary coffees, we talk in bits and pieces, I can't really remember why we're there. Eventually a group of teenage boys amble past, there are six or seven of them, black boys mostly. They are laughing, they are not moving very fast, they are taking up a section of pavement, they are loud, as teenagers are wont to be, they wear their jeans in complicated ways, halfway between their waists and knees it seems. We, the three of us watch them, their chests are puffed up, their movements are languid and hard, they own their space, they are on their own time. We watch them silently until they are out of sight and then my friend's dad speaks.
"Young men" he says disparagingly "have been taught to walk that way by the Western." His thesis: that particular genre of films has made generations of young males feel that masculinity and impropriety are synonymous. The wide set leg stance. The casual disdain. The arrogance. "There are no young gentlemen any more. No Cary Grants. Young men are not proud to be thought of as gentlemen."
My friend disagrees, he believes that the walk which is a saunter is done in defensiveness. Teenage boys, black boys, working class boys, this is a power they have, to squeeze others out of their space. It is the power to use prejudice against the prejudiced and an action in and of itself, a claiming of ground. It is an attitude and attitude isn't a bad thing when you live in a world that won't let you come and go easy, as steeped in racism and classism and disdain for you as it is, then attitude is entirely necessary.
The nuances of this argument are central to the plot of Attack The Block (2011). Director/Writer Joe Cornish wants us to know that nobody is really bad, even the gang of boys mugging the nurse on her way home from work, they just have attitudes. By earnestly fighting the scary furry creatures that fall from the sky on Bonfire Night Pest, Dennis, Jerome and Biggz are given the chance to prove themselves (kind, smart, courageous) and for leader Moses, (the most petulant member of the gang, the obvious troublemaker), there is an opportunity for redemption.
I am always happy to see those who don't usually get a stage take centre. I am pleased that Attack The Block has been received so well internationally. (It won the Midnight Feature Award at the 2011 SXSW and the audience award for Best Narrative at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival. I swooned when Spike Lee wouldn't stop tweeting about it and now John Boyega has a lead role in his upcoming HBO project Da Brick.) Watching black boys from London as protagonists made me giddy with joy, made me a black girl from London feel recognised, less invisible in the wider world. I don't know much about the actors that played the teenagers but their mannerisms and accents were convincing. Even in dealing with the film's drug dealing sublot which felt superflous - empty, weighty and simplistic - they were earnest enough.
As a sci-fi comedy Attack The Block falls flat. The creatures from outer space don't get enough screen time, they don't shock or confuse or amuse enough, I didn't feel them or feel thrilled by them. The crucial shot where we watch an army of aliens haul their furry carcasses up the side of a tower block doesn't work, it doesn't pop. Cornish's direction is good, solid but general, nothing you could define as a style - yet. But what he sacrifices in staying true to the genre's formula he gains back in attempting to tell a story about a block and grappling with its dual identities as a home and a prison, as a safe and dangerous place. Yes, the tone of the film comes off a little after school special but in our hard cold world of mostly morally dubious blockbusters that is not such a bad thing. There is a welcome coziness to Attack The Block's ethical message: Give others the benefit of the doubt. Be nicer.