JAZ MORRISON | April 2017
Representation of the black British diaspora is rare, despite its importance in framing perceptions of those it represents. Many portrayals are done by those outside of the demographic – usually white people, and thus is often filtered through the ‘white gaze’, causing depictions to often be lacking in depth, or too reliant on stereotypes. Attack the Block (ATB) emerged the same year as the 2011 riots, a spectacle blamed on the working-class community, with black male youth under fire (Gilligan, 2012: 245). This view stems from prejudices and fears upheld by the media, affecting society’s relationship with black people, and black mental wellbeing (Apena, 2007: 218), which is why every depiction is imperative in assigning the black community its long-ignored humanity.
By beginning with a statistical insight into Black British representation, it became quickly evident that overall representation is lacking (Hoyes, 2016: 30), causing my analysis of the film to be with the understanding that its portrayal of black people is important regarding the pool of overall representation. I also found it relevant to consider essays and books already written on white perception of the BAME community, which provided the foundation of my argument – that it can be problematic for white people to tell the stories of black people, and that this viewpoint, or ‘gaze’ can even damage the perception and self-worth of black people, notably those with similar colloquialisms and behaviours to characters in Attack the Block (Apena, 2007: 224). Here, it is worth mentioning that representation communicates both value and meaning, depending on what kind of representation is offered (Entman & Rojecki, 2000: 182). Looking at the work of Bell Hooks, I found insight into how black masculinity can be life-threatening, and this is reflected in the behaviour of many black characters in Cornish’s film. Hooks mentions how this black masculinity can be envied by white men on the outside, despite its negative effects in the black community (1992: 95). As Cornish is white, envy is probable to have influenced his gaze, particularly when writing the script for Attack the Block. The fact that the middle-class, white, male character who appropriates black culture in the film (Brewis) is based on Cornish is a concern worth noting and considering in the presentation of black youth who embrace this masculinity. While this strain of manliness can be envied, it is often feared in the wider public (Apena, 2007: 214). This became clear during the 2011 Riots, a phenomenon that broke out three months after Attack the Block premiered. With the profiling of black youth in national headlines despite the involvement of people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds (Entman & Rojecki, 2000: Engels & Kory, 2014: 50), a spotlight is put on the lack of positive representation black communities receive. Writers like Paula Gilligan tie such representation to a political agenda designed to disenfranchise working class communities, and she argues that this was especially present during the riots (2012: 244). A truly unredeemable antagonist simply has no redeemable qualities, and if a person’s redeemable qualities are never shown to the public, how is the public supposed to know that they’re there (Engles & Kory, 2014: 51)? In terms of “whiteness”, white people have been given enough representation to be afforded individuality, one that allows their behaviour to be layered and developed in some way, exuding a redeemable quality (Entman & Rojecki, 2000: 53) – this is not the case for black Brits, who are given a single cultural identity (Hall, 1989: 69), and are habitually seen as antagonistic for virtually no reason (Engles & Kory, 2014: 62; Denevi, 2001: 3), leading scholars like Anthony Gunter to provide context for behaviours. White people do not seem to suffer from self-esteem issues for ethnic reasons, and this may have to do with the media not putting them in a racial box (Hooks, 1992: 168). This is an unspoken white privilege that suggests the importance of aiding the self-worth of young black men – to show them that there is more to the black community than slavery, protesting and civil rights, sports, and crime (Entman & Rojecki, 2000: 193; Hoyes, 2016: 31). Identity is found in many things: class, age, gender, sexuality, and religious/spiritual ties. Ethnic background, and skin tone are also included, especially among ethnicities and skin tones that have been historically affected because of them (Hooks, 1992: 168; Denevi, 2001: 3-4; Hall, 1989: 74-80). Hence, when analysing Attack the Block, it is important to acknowledge how black bodies onscreen can affect both black and white minds offscreen.
Because of white dominance in storytelling, the methodology I opted for was content analysis. The portrayal of black males in cinema can often be one-dimensional, so it is worth questioning its nuances, and asking if their behaviour is “natural” or not. This is based on Critical Race Theory (CRT), that emphasises the importance of storytelling to disenfranchised people, whose stories will sound different coming from white people, regardless of how well meaning, and can contribute to prevailing narratives about the oppressed demographic (Apena, 2007: 214). As many content-consumers are cognitive misers (Entman & Rojecki, 2000: 58), it cannot be assumed that stereotypes presented in content are seen for what they are. Cornish’s plot is very straightforward, to the point that a cognitive miser can understand it in its general form. But the behaviour of less obvious characters, particularly the secondary antagonist, Hi-Hatz, can help subconsciously reinforce negative images of young black men (Entman & Rojecki, 2000: 49). Therefore, it is important in looking at the way characters look, emote, and speak, as they all contribute to, or challenge the idea of the “antisocial black boy”. A limitation of this approach is that the importance of representation, and its effect on black communities come from mainly African American studies, and the British reports are London-based, meaning that there may be issues in accurately generalising results to the larger British public. Additionally, the main reports were published before 2010, which is almost a decade ago, meaning the results could be dated. It would have been beneficial to research black youth in the West Midlands, and document their experiences with black British characters represented through the white gaze in film.
As stated earlier, Cornish clearly shows the story arc of his main characters, Moses, Dennis, Pest, Jerome, and Biggz, who go from being viewed as ‘monsters’ – by Sam, as well as the viewer – to being the saviours of their South London flat. Through Sam’s quickness to pin the aliens on gang culture (00:43:31), or Brewis’ story of being ‘busted’ by his parents for cannabis possession (00:40:30), it is evident that there are prejudices and privileges white people can have without even knowing (Hooks, 1992: 177; Denevi, 2001: 3-4), and black people, who are more associated with gang culture and drugs, are affected by this (Apena, 2007: 226-7). Sam and Brewis’ respective behaviours result through their subjective view of black culture – their ‘white gaze’ (Entman & Rojecki, 2000: 51). This gaze predisposes Sam, a white woman, to fear black males, and causes Brewis, a white man, to covet the culture black males possess. Cornish uses these two characters to point out misconceptions about black youth, humanising them, resulting in positive, well-rounded portrayals. Consequently, I do not want to focus on them as much as I want to focus on how Cornish presents what Gunter calls “Road Life” (2010: 349) at three stages, through Mayhem, Moses, and Hi-Hatz. While Moses, the protagonist, is humanised through his well-constructed character arc, Mayhem and Hi-Hatz are relatively undeveloped, causing their actions to seem “normal” according to their stereotypes (Hooks, 1992: 170).
Gavin, better known by his street name Mayhem, desires to spend time with Moses and his friends, with the justification that he and his friend Probs (Reginald) are ‘bad boys’ (00:11:31). Already, road life is attractive. According to Gunter’s study “badness” is characterised by hyper aggressive modes of behaviour, and violent and petty crime, including low-level drug dealing. Gunter associates these with hyper-masculinity (2010: 352). Here, masculinity is defined by physical strength, recklessness, and opportunities to exert such traits. In the instance of the film, Mayhem and Probs’ opportunity comes when an alien has Biggz cornered (01:10:28). Rather than exhibit these traits, Mayhem displays clear, justified, anxiety, when he asks, ‘what if [the alien] kills us?’ Though this is a valid question, it does not subscribe to the recklessness of “manliness”, a trait that has been long associated. Hooks mentions Frederick Douglass, who despite being known and renowned for his intelligence, finally saw worth in himself when he fought a slave overseer: ‘I was nothing before – I was a man now.’ (1992: 90). This form of masculinity has come to be associated with “blackness” (Hooks, 1992: 87-8), and has evidently become a cultural value within the black community (Apena, 2007: 213). Cornish’s white gaze has captured this in Mayhem’s pursuit of road life, to the point that even when common sense interferes, Probs merely replies that nobody will call him by his street name if he ‘keep[s] on acting like such a pussy.’ With ‘pussy’ being associated with womanhood [which has connotations distinct to masculinity] (Hooks, 1992: 94), it is clear why such reckless acts of “bravery” are common within these communities – after all, once the alien is killed, Biggz acknowledges Mayhem’s street name, providing instant gratification (01:12:00) (Entman & Rojecki, 2000: 199).
The second stage of road life presented is through Moses, the only character out of the three who is well-developed. Therefore, I will emphasise on his portrayal in the first thirty minutes of the film. The action starts when an alien scratches Moses’ face while he searches the car (00:05:12). What starts off as “flight” – Moses recoils from the car – quickly becomes “fight”, when he decides to pursue the alien. The transition between these two states of mind are influenced by his friends, who laugh about his attack: ‘Moses got shanked by a dobby!’ Here, he is goaded into exerting this idea of black masculinity, despite it being clearly against his initial “flight” nature. Gunter expresses the desire for young males to put out a message ‘that they are not the victims (weak or ‘pussies’), rather they are the victimizers,’ (2010: 353). However, it must be noted that pursuing an alien and killing it is a rather extreme act, and from personal experience, black people can show distrust and scepticism of animals, especially animals they have never seen before. Journalist Tim Lott’s admittance of the white liberal’s ‘dirty little secret’ suddenly comes to mind. Moses’ act feels somewhat caricatured, and it could be due to the influence of Cornish’s white gaze, a gaze with a ‘chief prejudice […] on black males.’ Lott continues: ‘It mainly arises from the vague suspicion that they are contemptuous of the law and of white society in general.’ (Gunter, 2010: 353). This prejudice, allegedly held by even progressive white people, influences the way they view black people, and as the holders of hegemonic discourse, they must be aware of any cultural practices that may reinforce negative black stereotypes (Hooks, 1992: 177; Denevi, 2001: 4). Cornish shows awareness by choosing to contrast Moses with an actual ‘monster’ (00:08:51) (Palmer, 2014: 1-3) – an enemy that can be universally hated, that is ‘politically correct. They’re bad. They’re evil. And they’re not even human.’ (Entman & Rojecki, 2000: 189).
These aliens are the primary antagonists, but note that they’re likened to dogs and monkeys with coats that are ‘the blackest black ever,’ (00:44:34). This is reminiscent of slurs often used on black people, and the implication becomes obvious: the murderous beasts, while non-human, are still black (Palmer, 2014: 9). To simplify his contribution to the plot, Hi-Hatz (we never learn his real name) is arguably the human manifestation of the aliens. He is introduced to us in a “weed room”, listening and shouting along to violent rap music, clad in typical “rudeboy” attire (00:16:10) (Gunter, 2010: 352-3). His main concern is authority, and he is willing to respond in a hyper-masculine way to maintain it, i.e. hunt down and kill Moses, a fifteen-year-old boy (2010: 350). This is virtually identical to the aliens’ mission. When his friends are mercilessly killed, Hi-Hatz [tries to] adopt a screw-face (2010: 353), a significant difference to Moses shedding a tear for Dennis (00:55:15). Hi-Hatz is recompensed with death at the hands of the black monsters. His murder has the most screen-time, with the inference that the audience is supposed to enjoy his “comeuppance” (01:05:51). I strongly believe that this is the biggest problem with the film. Cornish presents Hi-Hatz as a two-dimensional character with no redeemable traits. The only threat larger than Hi-Hatz – a black, male youth – doesn’t actually exist; regardless, his sadistic, unjustifiable nature ties him too closely to them (Palmer, 2014: 3). Like the monsters, he never displays a positive quality, and is never given a backstory. He is the image the public have in mind when demonising black British youth, which is problematic (Gunter, 2010: 361-2). Surely, Hi-Hatz is just an older version of Moses – the third stage in road life? While Mayhem’s portrayal is softened by age, and Moses’ portrayal is softened by character development, audiences are left to cheer as the aliens rip the skin from Hi-Hatz’s face, because he is ultimately the “real” antagonist.
Whilst black British representation in the media is desired, it must be balanced. When more negativity is published and screened than positivity, mainstream culture is contorted by it (Entman & Rojecki, 2000: 49). ‘Media images still contain traces of long-standing cultural presumptions […] that [idealize] “Whiteness”,’ (2000: 57). In Attack the Block, Joe Cornish clearly challenges many of the stereotypes of black, male youth (Palmer, 2014: 3,7), but the presence of an antagonistic caricature puts a face to the fear and prejudices nurtured by the media (Palmer, 2014: 1-2; Engles & Kory, 2014: 62), something that became particularly overt during the 2011 Riots. Gilligan states that this fearmongering ‘mask[ed] the policy origins of social deprivation and policing cultures targeting non-white youth that were foundational to [the riots],’ (Gilligan, 2012: 244), implying that such profiling has its roots in white supremacy, and is hegemonic in origin. Cornish’s social commentary fell short because, frankly, he forgot about need for humanity in certain characters, which is unacceptable but not shocking (Hooks, 1992: 170; Entman & Rojecki, 2000: 57-8). His effort was, in my opinion, valiant, but it stresses the need for black British people to tell their own stories, because despite the best of intentions, black storytellers will always be more accurate with their stories than the ‘dominant culture of hegemonic whiteness.’ (Apena, 2007: 214). The next step is perhaps to examine portrayals by black writers and filmmakers, to see if black British humanity and individuality is truly maintained, or if it falls prey to the prevailing stereotypes perpetuated by the white gaze.
Apena, F. (2007). Being Black and in Trouble: The Role of Self-perception in the Offending Behaviour of Black Youth. Youth Justice, 7(3), pp.211-228
Denevi, E. (2001). Whiteness. [online] Nais.org. Available at: http://www.nais.org/Magazines-Newsletters/ISMagazine/Pages/Whiteness.aspx [Accessed 10 Apr. 2017]
Engles, T. and Kory, F. (2014). “What did she see?” The White Gaze and Postmodern Triple Consciousness in Walter Dean Myers’s Monster. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 39(1), pp.49-67
Entman, R. and Rojecki, A. (2000). The Black image in the White mind: Media and Race in America. 1st ed. Chicago, III. [u.a.]: University of Chicago Press, pp.46-58, 182-203
Gilligan, P. (2012). “Harsh Realism”: Gender, Reality Television, and the Politics of the “Sink” Housing Estate in Austerity Britain. Television and New Media, 14(3), pp.244-260
Gunter, A. (2010). Growing up bad? Black Youth, ‘Road’ Culture and Badness in an East London Neighbourhood. 1st ed. London: Tufnell Press, pp.349-363
Hall, S. (1989). Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation. In: M. Diawara, H. Baker Jr. and R. Lindeborg, Black British Culutral Studies: A Reader. 1st ed. University of Chicago Press, pp.68-81
Hooks, B. (1992). Black Looks. 1st ed. Boston: South End Press, pp.87-133, 168-177
Hoyes, M. (2016). Vital Statistics. Sight and Sound (11), pp.30-31
Long, P. and Wall, T. (2012). Media Studies: Texts, Production, Context. 2nd ed. London: Pearson, pp.100-129, 363-369
Palmer, L. (2015). Attack the Block: Monsters, Race and Rewriting South London’s Outer Spaces. Jump Cut [online] (56). Available at: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc56.2014-2015/PalmerAttackBlock/text.html [Accessed 18 Apr. 2017]