Before John Boyega became "Star Wars" hero Finn, he was far more revolutionary in "Attack the Block"

Revisit the cult sci-fi film that masterfully plays with the white gaze and champions faith in community vs. police

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 9, 2020 10:22PM (EDT)

A close friend of mine insisted that I see "Attack the Block" in theaters back when it came out in 2011. My recall of this point is clearer than most memories because of the purposeful reasoning behind her insistence, as well as the fact that she refused to talk with me about the film until I'd seen it.

This wasn't to prevent herself from spoiling some mind-blowing plot twist; the poster's "Inner City vs. Outer Space" tagline is a concise plot summary of what happens. Rather, the film's surprising turn lurks within the progression of the story itself.

"Attack the Block" is modern-day David versus intergalactic Goliath story, in which wolf-like, predatory extraterrestrials drop out of the sky and land in a park near a council estate in London. Joe Cornish, who wrote the film as well as directed it, positions a gang of scruffy street kids as the tale's heroes, even giving a few of them bikes to get around in a nod, perhaps, to Elliott and his friends in the Steven Spielberg classic "E.T."

But, as the kids remind us time and again throughout the movie, this is South London, not suburban Middle America. And the circumstances by which we meet these boys is where the subversive brilliance of "Attack the Block" begins.

The story opens on Guy Fawkes Day, a fireworks-heavy holiday that serves the dual purpose of covering for an alien invasion and contextual commentary, and walks us into the 'hood alongside Sam, a young white woman who recently moved into one of the council estate's apartments.

Sam is essentially an innocent walking home in the dark. She's modestly dressed and talking to a loved on the phone as she's suddenly cornered by a bunch of boys with covered faces. The biggest one pulls a knife and demands Sam's phone, her money, and a ring on her finger, tussling with her for the last bit.

As Sam runs away, the gang's leader, Moses, pulls off his scarf to reveal his face. This is how "Attack the Block" introduces its main hero, how a few million folks first become acquainted with the enormously talented John Boyega, and how Cornish surreptitiously dunks the audience into a social experiment concerning gaze.

My friend didn't warn me about this because she wanted the experiment to do its work, and it did: That moment made me absolutely furious. I was angry at the director for fulfilling every white person's stereotypical fear about young black men, angry at my friend, a white woman, for recommending this B-grade exploitation dreck, and angry at Boyega, who was 19 when the film was released in the United States, for allowing himself to be used in this way.

By the end of "Attack the Block," however, I loved it – loved Moses and loved Cornish for pulling that trick on me at the beginning. It is far from the first film to make heroes out of lawbreakers, of course. But the way Cornish slowly changes the lens filter from one reflective of the white gaze to one that empathizes with Moses, and the underclass in general, is stunning.

It initially conditions us to side with a white woman who, for good reason, writes off Moses and his friends as "f**king monsters" at the beginning of the story and by its end persuades the audience to identify with those same kids and everyone else who survives the film's actual monsters. And it does this by proving, time and again, that in a life or death crisis, ordinary people are better at taking care of each other than a militarized force granted dispensation to use state violence against the poor.

In stressful times it can be therapeutic to turn to beloved movies for solace and inspiration, commiseration and comfort. This week I re-watched "Attack the Block" for the same reasons boutique water brands brag about bottling their precious liquid at its source, which is to say I wanted to be reminded of what makes Boyega, who went on to be featured in "Star Wars," so appealing as a popular figure of resistance. And I think the answer lies somewhere in his portrayal of Moses as opposed to the side of him "Star Wars" brought forth through his stormtrooper-turned-rebel Finn.

Not long after Boyega made headlines last week for his riveting Black Lives Matter speech in London's Hyde Park, a few analyses of Finn began popping upon my timeline. Among the most thoughtful is Robert Daniels' analysis in Polygon, where he explores Finn as a missed opportunity for "Star Wars" to honestly portray the Black experience through a revolutionary's lens.

Daniels points out that Finn's introduction in 2015's "The Force Awakens" came directly in the midst of the Ferguson, Missouri protests and following the murder of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman. In a few crucial ways, he explains, Abrams' introduction of Finn is reflective of the Black revolutionary's identity reclamation:

In The Force Awakens, Finn seizes his freedom from the First Order by escaping from the clutches of Kylo Ren with Poe Dameron. He discovers an identity by discarding the white stormtrooper helmet that erased his skin color and dropping his slave name, FN-2187, to become "Finn." When Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Finn capture Captain Phasma — Finn's former commanding officer and master — he taunts her with the phrase, "I'm in charge now," which expresses his embodiment of Black resistance.

Daniels goes on to add that Finn's would-be Black individuality is undercut to fit the Disney and LucasFilm mold, one that favors unity over alliance and by necessity, absorbs any indicator of Finn's Blackness into a homogenized Resistance devoted, as would-be-but-never-realized love interest Rose tells Finn, not to "fighting what we hate, but saving what we love."

In "Attack the Block" Boyega, as Moses, doesn't look like a kid who trusts in the power of love. Anger locks down his facial expression, save for when he's obviously frightened by greater threats: aliens, a crazed, gun-toting local gangster and worst of all, the "Feds," their shorthand for the police.

Time and again Sam suggests they call in the cops for help, reflecting her experience as a white woman. For her, the cops are saviors; for Mos and his friends, they're as much as a threat as the faceless fangs and claws that have plunged into their midst from outer space. "You'd be better off calling the Ghostbusters, love," one quips.

Eventually Sam has no choice but to team up with the teens who mugged her, and in doing so she gets to know Moses, realizing this band of fearsome "big dogs" are really just scared and unusually brave children, Moses most of all.

Despite the missed opportunity with "Star Wars," to give Disney a little credit, within its library is a movie that eschews the white gaze quite meaningfully: "Black Panther," set in a fictional African country untouched by colonialism or conquest called Wakanda.

It's no coincidence that the film's villain, Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger, is the rare, fascinating antagonist who may be morally bankrupt but, as many have pointed out, isn't fundamentally wrong. He's a murderer, no question. He's also dead-on in his indictment of the Wakandan government and its determined stance to keep its superior power and resources hidden from the rest of the world, including from two billion oppressed Black people whom they theoretically could support.

When Killmonger steals from a museum, he tells the docent, "How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?"

When he confronts King T'Challa and the rest of the royals in Wakanda's throne room, he chastises them for relegating the rest of the world's Black people to live much harder lives. "You know, where I'm from, when Black folks started revolutions, they never had the firepower or the resources to fight their oppressors. Where was Wakanda?"

I thought about that exchange a week ago, when the protests began consuming the country and police in riot gear began unleashing violence on the citizens they are sworn to protect and serve. For a while, at least, Wakanda was on my TV screen. That gave me comfort, both for its utopian vision and for Killmonger's realism. But it also allowed me to wish and wonder: what if?

Boyega, the man, brought me back down to Earth with his speech. He also sent me back to reconsider Moses alongside Jordan's abandoned Wakandan prince – two characters left to fend for themselves – Killmonger in an Oakland before it was invaded by Silicon Valley, Moses in South London.

We meet Moses at the beginning of his journey, however, when his purpose is to protect the block at all costs, and his heart is still innocent. And Cornish shows this quite simply, by taking us inside the apartments of Moses' pals to meet their families, and see how each of them lives . . . all except, notably, for Moses.

Cornish saves the peek into his inner sanctum until the very end when Sam enters and gets a sense of who this young man she fears truly is by taking in the details of his place. To describe what she sees is to blow the shock at taking in a truly heartbreaking view. Once she finds out how old Moses actually is, she softly tells him he looks older. "Thanks," he says, although from an outsider's perspective it's not a compliment but a sobering, sad observation. In "E.T.," Elliott and his friends, including his older brother, are without question viewed as children.

The world refuses to give the same grace and understanding to Moses and his friends, as we see a few scenes later, after Moses enacts his endgame in the battle against the space creatures. Although he saves the day, the police, being who they are, automatically arrest him and his companions. At the beginning of "Attack the Block," that's all Sam wanted. But in the final scene, after fighting side by side with him, she uses her privilege to a different end. "I know them," Sam tells the cops. "They're my neighbors. They protected me."

Maintaining some level of secrecy around the perspective shift in "Attack the Block" was a necessity in 2011. I don't think that's the case anymore in 2020, not merely due to the fact that the film is nearly a decade old but owing to our present circumstances.

We sit at a time of widespread reckoning and self-evaluation, on an individual level and globally. I'd argue that one of the reasons so many young white people have joined in these protests is at least in some small part due to the cultural conditioning in the "Star Wars" message, displayed in the co-opting of the Rebel Alliance logo and the adoption of the Resistance as the unofficial descriptor of anti-MAGA progressives.

The young adults in those crowds grew up on a diet of this cultural myth alongside the Marvel superhero tales of good versus evil, and perhaps recognize the call to stand against a supervillain when they see it.

"Black Panther" and the "Star Wars" films were box office smashes. "Attack the Block" was a financial flop, grossing just over $6.2 million worldwide over the 22 weeks that it played in theaters, less than half of its $13 million budget, according to Box Office Mojo.

But in the way of all underappreciated independent films that stand the test of time, "Attack the Block" deserves wider consideration for its message and in light of the man into whom its star has evolved. It's also worth pointing out the essential humanity and optimism of its message, that it is possible for a person to start out viewing the alien other in her midst as monsters and, whether by effort or existential necessity, see them as neighbors who deserve to be looked after. "Star Wars" might have played a part in bringing some kids to the revolution, but hopefully more people will discover "Attack the Block" and appreciate the Moses in their midst.

"Attack the Block" is available for rental on Amazon Prime, iTunes and YouTube, and can be streamed for free on Pluto TV.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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