Thursday 18th September 2014,
Televisual

Did ‘Attack the Block’ and ‘Misfits’ Presage the London Riots?

Aymar Jean Christian August 8, 2011 uncategorized 9 Comments

Thanks to the Boston Phoenix for linking!

I’d been planning a post on Attack the Block, the brilliant UK sci-fi film, and Misfits, e4′s hit teen series, before I read about parts of London spuriously rioting in response to the police killing of Mark Duggan. When I read the youth of London were enraged, seemingly out of the blue, I wondered if I’d stumbled on a strange coincidence.

Attack the Block is a lively, humorous and dark tale of Moses and his friends, a multicultural group of teens who live in the projects of London. One day, after mugging a nice white lady, Sam, the youth realize aliens are falling from the sky. Soon it becomes increasingly clear the aliens are going for the ‘hood. It’s a brilliant conceit. Sci-fi films almost always focus on the richer areas of their home countries — Manhattan, the Capitol, central London. From Independence Day to Harry Potter, it’s much more gripping to see areas people actually care about go down in flames. Besides, the thinking goes, isn’t that the way it would happen in real life?

Similarly, Misfits, now on Hulu, focuses on the peculiar fusion of the supernatural and the derelict. A band of mostly working class British youth, two black and three white, get hit with a cosmic storm and have to decide whether to use their powers for the public good or for themselves.

Both properties share, artistically, an accomplished use of slang and vernacular and a witty, ironic sensibility. Both are funny and frightening. But their deepest connection is the theme of societal rejects learning to become full citizens, to participate appropriately in society.

The series are fantasy, and that’s the appeal. Because the truth of England, we have now seen, is these “misfits” aren’t participating fully in the riches of society. England has enjoyed over a decade of tremendous growth, at least for the rich, but Tottenham, the multicultural area of London where the riots began, has high unemployment.

(Spoilers ahead).

These forgotten areas, located in incredibly wealthy countries, face disproportionate policing — a vibrant theme in Attack the Block – and more interactions with the nanny-state — Misfits centers on the mandatory community service of its juvenile delinquents.

The fantasy of Attack the Block and Misfits is that, in the end, if you’re poor, of color, and/or underemployed, you can eventually become a hero. Attack the Block‘s Moses saves London. One of the final images even has him dangling, twenty stories high, from the British flag! While being escorted to jail by the police, the film has the whole neighborhood chanting his name. (Prophetically, the block’s chanters are chanting both in praise of Moses but also — this is key — against the police). Misfits‘ protagonists take longer to realize their potential, but by the end of the second season, the writers suggest they’ve learned their lessons and have decided to become heroes. Though hopefully season three will complicate that.

What’s revolutionary about these shows is they tap into the rage of the underclass while still capturing the joy, sex and wit which give their lives pleasure and hope.

What they miss, though, is assimilation is not so easy, especially in the face of widespread indifference. To be fair, both Joe Cornish (writer-director, Attack the Block) and Howard Overman (creator, Misfits) forestall their eventual happy endings as long as possible. Misfits is as much about what the kids do wrong as right. Moses’ redemption, leading the projects to the promised land, comes at the tail end of Attack the Block, and not before he and his friends deliver impassioned and realistic critiques of the police and middle class London.

We academics would describe Attack the Block and Misfits‘ tendency to highlight exemplary individuals — here, supernatural! — amidst overwhelming social and economic neglect as a symptom of neolliberalism, a sloppy word whose definition few people fully understand, myself included. But the story goes something like this: beginning in full force under the conservative administrations of Reagan and Thatcher, various governments started to de-invest in social programs, emphasizing policies intended to enrich the upper strata with hopes those benefits would trickle down. To make it from the bottom, you had to be special.

Now in 2011, though it clearly hasn’t worked, both Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama (held hostage by Republicans and Bush policies), aren’t changing course, at least not fast enough.

This has left wide swathes of the US and UK populations underemployed for decades, many of them are disproportionately of color. Black asset growth in the US is either unchanged or down from the 1980s, while the majority haven’t done as bad. Unemployment for urban, working class youth are many times the reported national figures.

In the face of such realities, worsened by unequal policing — the drug war, which Obama is doubling down on, is the main culprit — what’s a youth left to do? If you’re in the movies, luckily you’ll probably get superpowers and be awesome. If you live in the real world, eventually there’s nothing left to do except scream.

That said, you should really watch Attack the Block and Misfits. They are things of beauty. For the latter, ignore the rape-y subplot because it’ll go away; for the former, read the ending as more hope than reality, or a sign that the publicly-supported producers didn’t want to piss off the state too much.

The kids are doing it for them, anyway.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

9 Comments

  1. v1cious August 9, 2011 at 11:49 am

    You could’ve warned us about the spoilers. Some of us haven’t seen Attack the Block yet.

  2. Aymar Jean Christian August 9, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    I did but I’ll underscore for future readers. Either way, the movie is still good — the plot is predictable, the joy is in the writing, editing and acting.

  3. Stephen Kearse August 13, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    I don’t know if Attack the Block has a hopeful ending. Moses gets sympathy from the police only because an educated white woman begs on his behalf. Due process was denied and two of his close friends were brutally murdered. He did receive understanding and support from the neighborhood, but that neighborhood and its people are still marginalized. The greater world still views him and his posse as misfits.

    Furthermore, they never terrorized the established residents of the neighborhood anyway. They were only hostile to outsiders.

    The ending is hopeful only in the sense that presumably the evidence of Moses being innocent is so overwhelming that in the end he will receive fair treatment. But based on the “fed’s” prior treatment of Moses and his crew, that’s probably an unsubstantiated hope. We’ll never know.

  4. Aymar Jean Christian August 13, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    I do agree the hopefulness of the end is up for debate — I hesitated before using the word. I think the director wants most people to think Moses will be all right. Perhaps “feel-good” is a touch more accurate? I definitely left the theater non-angry.

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