Mighty White of You 2: Attack the Block (2011)

Posted by Charles Reece, September 11, 2011 11:02pm | Post a Comment

[Attack the Block] would start like an Abel Ferrara film or a Michael Winner film with this archetypal situation, this deliberately stereotypical situation and then this thing would fall from the sky and everything would change. And you would start the process of humanizing and exploring and dimensionalizing the characters. That was absolutely the inspiration.
-- Writer-Director Joe Cornish

Attack the Block begins with the mugging of a young white woman named Sam by a group of South London teenage thugs in hoodies. In contrast to a "stereotypical situation" from Winner or Ferrara, the process of humanizing the gang was already implicitly underway before the audience learns anything else about the characters: Sam is neither raped nor killed, only loses her purse. That is, thieves are a lot more human than rapists or murderers (e.g., Cary Grant was allowed to play the former in To Catch a Thief, but the studio insisted that Hitchcock absolve Ray Milland of wife killing in Dial M for Murder). Identification won't prove too taxing, since a falling alien disrupts the event, unburdening the empathic bond between audience and the criminals we'll be asked to feel as heroic later on (nevertheless, some still had a problem with the film's anti-heroes). The position of "Whiteness" is, for the present film, about class, the structural haves and have-nots: Sam is a nurse in training with an economic future; the gang members have to take what they need. She'll move away from the area after residency; the gang is stuck there. As with Cowboys & Aliens, the fantasy of extraterrestrial invasion erases the structural conflict, the leftover being what unifies the two represented classes, namely their jointly held humanity. Sam eventually joins her former attackers (the plot if you want it), reasoning that she's safer with them than alone against the (true) aliens.

If Attack the Block is less problematic than Cowboys & Aliens and functions better as diversionary entertainment -- as a white humanist fantasy -- it's because there's seemingly less to distract the viewer from the entertainment. Cornish doesn't bring along as much ideological baggage (or, at least, he stores it better than Favreau and his screenwriters). Differences in class are never truly differences in the ontological position of Human. As Marx (in Capital) suggested, the proletariat receives a wage that however insufficient it may be, is never symbolically nugatory. He has some agency in how to spend it. This is a difference in scale, not kind, from the rich capitalist. Chattel slavery, however, deprives the individual of his humanity, his agency; since no wage is given, his body becomes pure use value for another (the master). Expanding on this contrast, Frank B. Wilderson III (in Red, White & Black) points out, "[i]f workers can buy a loaf of bread, they can also buy a slave." (p. 13) The proletariat might be exploited and alienated, but the slave isn't even human. In having the middle class white nurse join up with a bunch of poor, mostly black kids (there's one white among them), Cornish sets up what Wilderson calls a conflict ("a rubric of problems that can be posed and conceptually solved") rather than an antagonism ("an irreconciliable struggle between entities, or positions, the resolution of which is not dialectical but entails the obliteration of one of the positions" - p. 5). The class difference between the white heroine, Sam, and the black anti-hero, Moses (the gang leader), can be elided, because the history of class struggle has never been a matter of denying one class the ontological position of Human. Therefore, facing an attack from the ontological Inhuman -- i.e., the black, furry ape-wolf hybrids with glowing blue teeth -- a common ground is (re-)discovered by the two protagonists (and the audience). 

A beautifully streamlined, low-budget design.

What's left unsaid -- is structurally unconscious -- is the difference (the antagonism) between Whiteness and Blackness. Is it mere happenstance that most of the gang (the lower class) are black? The fear being entertained in this film, as with Cowboys & Aliens, is that the dominant order aka the status quo aka "Whiteness" will be destroyed by an extraterrestrial lifeform qua Otherness. The fantasy is that Whiteness' own historically situated Earthbound Other (Indians, blacks) will naturally find more common cause with the extant normative order than with the revolutionary potential of the invading Inhumans. Granted, both films stack the deck, showing the aliens to be nothing more than bloodthirsty monsters, but that simply reinforces the fantasy of what Wilderson calls a Master/Settler narrative. A more revolutionary alien invasion film has yet to be made that would show an intelligent invading species providing a genuine, empathic analogy to those who've historically been structured as something ontologically closer to the aliens than humans. To its credit, one might say, Attack the Block shows Moses being arrested after having saved the status quo from destruction, but this ironic outcome doesn't mitigate the fact that he's smiling at a job well done.

Mighty White of You, Part 1

Relevant Tags

Frank B. Wilderson Iii (4), Otherness (4), Whiteness (4), Blackness (5), Joe Cornish (2), Attack The Block (8)