Attack the Block

UK 2011, 88 mins
Director: Joe Cornish

+ panel discussion with actors Michael Ajao and Jumayn Hunter, hosted by Dr Clive Chijioke Nwonka

Joe Cornish’s 2011 sci-fi comedy about a group of youths defending their south London housing estate against an extra-terrestrial attack has achieved cult status. To mark the publication of Dr Clive Chijioke Nwonka’s forthcoming book Black Boys: The Social Aesthetics of British Urban Cinema (Bloomsbury), this special event will look at how the film remains a powerful exploration of race and class, social stigma, housing, Black British identity and nationhood.

Joe Cornish first made his name as co-presenter (with Adam Buxton) of Channel 4’s The Adam and Joe Show (1996-2001), fondly remembered for re-enacting big-screen blockbusters with the aid of cuddly toys. Although technically far slicker and entirely live-action, his uproarious aliens-versus-hoodies feature debut Attack the Block betrays a similarly encyclopaedic genre knowledge, especially the Roger Corman-influenced films of the 1970s and 1980s that never allowed their high IQs and sociopolitical awareness to breach the fundamental requirement that they move like electrified greyhounds, preferably clocking in at under 90 minutes to facilitate drive-in double-billing.

Accordingly, Attack the Block’s premise about an alien invasion and the ensuing siege of a single South London housing estate has umpteen nods to John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Escape from New York (1981) and The Thing (1982), Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) and Streets of Fire (1984), Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) and the John Sayles-scripted Piranha (1978) and Alligator (1980), with a dash of French cinéma du look (Diva, 1981; Subway, 1985) and a Children’s Film Foundation romp thrown in for good measure. However, Cornish never falls into the trap of creating gags around lazy name-checks.

Here the milieu is wholly convincing. The ‘block’, the fictional Wyndham Tower estate, hosts not just the film’s hoodie protagonists but also their families (their higher-achieving female siblings being one of many passing nods to current sociological debates), to whom they have to make implausible excuses for staying out late. The mid-teenage gang members are viewed with suspicion by actual gangster Hi-Hatz but with admiration by nine-year-old wannabes Gavin and Reginald. ‘Mayhem’ and ‘Probs’, as they style themselves, have the excuse of extreme youth, whereas affluent white dopehead Brewis’s attempts at blending in (‘primatology, mammatology, all that shizzle’) attract derision from everybody except his dealer Ron (Nick Frost), who would regard even the outbreak of World War III with amiably befuddled equanimity.

Cornish draws superb performances out of his inexperienced central quintet, especially John Boyega (taciturn Moses) and Alex Esmail (livewire Pest). Their knifepoint mugging of trainee nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) risks audience alienation at the start, but likeable personalities quickly assert themselves with the aid of pungently witty dialogue (which Cornish developed with the cast and extensive pre-production research in local youth clubs) and the unsurprising revelation that their apparent menace is based more on bravado than being genuine hard cases like Hi-Hatz. But there’s also justified resentment about the cards dealt them in life, expressed generally through a longstanding (and mutual) hatred of the police, and directly through Moses’s paranoid speculation that the alien invasion might have been government-sanctioned as part of a plan to wipe out London’s Black population.

In common with its models, the film favours old-fashioned mechanical special effects to create the ‘big alien gorilla-wolf motherfuckers’ around whose invasion the plot revolves. These inspired combinations of shaggy black fur, glowing green fangs and lolloping gait are simultaneously menacing and strangely beautiful, especially in a slow-motion shot of a group of them chasing a sword-wielding Moses down a corridor. Cinematographer Tom Townend turns exclusively nocturnal locations into a riot of neon-drenched colour reminiscent of Andrew Laszlo’s work for Walter Hill, while the electronic throb of Steven Price’s score betrays an unmistakable John Carpenter influence.

Films this cine-literate are rarely this unpretentiously enjoyable, but it’s easy to see why it brought the house down at its South by Southwest festival premiere – even with people who struggled with some heroically uncompromising accents.
Michael Brooke, Sight and Sound, June 2011

Dr Clive Chijioke Nwonka (host) is Associate Professor in Film, Culture and Society at UCL, and a Faculty Associate of the UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation. Dr Nwonka’s research centres on the study of Black British and African American film, with a particular focus on the Black aesthetics, images of Black urbanity and the modes through which Black identities are shaped within forms of Black popular culture. Nwonka is the author of the book Black Boys: The Social Aesthetics of British Urban Film (2023), the co-editor of the book Black Film/British Cinema II (2021) and is the author of the forthcoming Black Arsenal: Race, Cultural Memory and Black British Identity (2024).

Michael Ajao is an actor/voiceover artist/writer from South London. He broke into the industry when he made his debut in the film Attack the Block, directed by Joe Cornish, at the tender age of 12. Since then he has made numerous appearances on stage, TV and film. His latest appearance was in the critically acclaimed Edgar Wright film Last Night in Soho, which you can now stream on Netflix.

Jumayn Hunter is a British actor known for martial arts, a big energetic personality, and cerebral performances in both cult film and mainstream blockbusters. His childhood, spent experiencing a unique blend of cultures in Florida, Jamaica, Paris and more, built the foundation for an acting career early on, with his debut being in theatre in the play Afterbirth by Deborah Paige, quickly followed by Macbeth by Max Stafford Clark. JR broke into mainstream television with The Bill and Casualty and had his feature film debut with Fallout, which launched his love for acting and solidified a career. Performances in Eden Lake, Cherry Tree Lane, Attack the Block, Piggy and Quartet followed soon after.

His skilful portrayal of complex characters led to notable collaborations with Idris Elba in Guerrilla and Yardie, and Steve McQueen in his Small Axe project. Showing his ability to seamlessly move between genres, he’s been seen in indie sci-fi How to Talk to Girls at Parties with Nicole Kidman, and in mainstream comedy with Sarah Pascoe’s Out of Her Mind. With a wealth of experience under his belt, he’s now planning his own projects; working with the likes of Netflix, BBC, SKY, Far Eastern, Continental African and South American and Bollywood cinema, he is hoping to produce some truly unique and polarising cinema for the future.

Directed by: Joe Cornish
©: StudioCanal S.A., UK Film Council, Channel Four Television Corporation
A Big Talk Pictures production
Made with the support of: The National Lottery through the UK Film Council’s Development Fund and Premiere Fund
Presented by: StudioCanal Features, Film4, UK Film Council
Executive Producers: Matthew Justice, Tessa Ross, Jenny Borgars, Will Clarke, Olivier Courson, Edgar Wright
Development Services: Jack Barth
Produced by: Nira Park, James Wilson
Line Producer: James Biddle
Associate Producer: Lucy Pardee
Senior Production and Development
Production Manager: Nicky Earnshaw
Production Co-ordinators: Emma Olrich-Smith, Fiona Garland
Unit Manager: Sharon McGuinness
Location Manager: Vinnie Jassal
Post-production Supervisor: Michael Solinger
1st Assistant Directors: Ben Howarth, Dan Channing Williams
2nd Assistant Directors: Harriet Worth, Tom Rye
Script Supervisors: Paula Casarin, Ruth Atkinson
Casting Director: Nina Gold
Written by: Joe Cornish
Director of Photography: Tom Townend
2nd Unit Directors of Photography: Julian Morson, Peter Talbot
Camera Operators: Chris Plevin, Rodrigo Gutierrez, Peter Field, Simon Baker
A Camera Operator: Julian Morson
Steadicam Operator: Julian Morson
1st Assistant Camera: Sam Renton, Ashley Bond
Central Loader: Elliot George Dupuy
Gaffers: Julian White, Martin Duncan
Key Grip: Rupert Lloyd Parry
Stills Photographers: Matt Nettheim, Liam Daniel
Visual Effects by: Double Negative
Additional Visual Effects by: Fido
UV Room VFX Sequence by: Method
Special Effects Supervisor: Sam Conway
Creature Effects by: Mike Elizalde
Creature Effects Created by: Spectral Motion Inc.
Editor: Jonathan Amos
Assembly Editor: Daniel Gethic
1st Assistant Editor: Tom Kemplen
2nd Assistant Editor: Rob Duffield
Visual Effects Editor: Tom Kemplen
Production Designer: Marcus Rowland
Supervising Art Director: Dick Lunn
Art Director: Andrea Coathupe
Set Decorator: Dick Lunn
Graphic Designer: Andy Bottomley
Graffiti Artist: Lachlan Hansen
Storyboard Artist: Nicholas Pelham
Production Buyer: Anna Kasabova
Costume Designer: Rosa Dias
Make-up and Hair Designer: Jane Walker
Special Make-up Effects Designer: Paul Hyett
Prosthetic Make-up Artists: Stuart Conran, Demetris Robinson
Title Sequence by: Matt Curtis
Laboratory: Technicolor Ltd.
Music by: Steven Price
Additional Music: Felix Buxton, Simon Ratcliffe
Orchestra Leader: Everton Nelson
Conductor: Geoff Alexander
Orchestrators: David Butterworth, Andrew Fisher
Music Supervisor: Nick Angel
Orchestra Contractor: Isobel Griffiths
Sound Designer: Jeremy Price
Production Sound Mixer: Jim Greenhorn
Sound Mixer: Clive Derbyshire
Boom Operators: Tristan Tarrant, Peter Margrave
Re-recording Mixer: Mark Paterson
Supervising Sound Editor: Julian Slater
Stunt Co-ordinators: Paul Herbert, Tony Lucken
On-set Police Advisers: Simon Morgan, Raffaele D’Orsi, Lucy D’Orsi
Multimedia Consultant: Lee Thomas
Dialogue Coach: Jill McCullogh
Armourers: Richard Hooper, Joss Skottowe, Greg Corke, Dave Evans
Pogo the dog supplied by: Animal Ambassadors
Shot at: 3 Mills Studios

John Boyega (Moses)
Jodie Whittaker (Sam)
Alex Esmail (Pest)
Franz Drameh (Dennis)
Leeon Jones (Jerome)
Simon Howard (Biggz)
Luke Treadaway (Brewis)
Jumayn Hunter (Hi-Hatz)
Danielle Vitalis (Tia)
Paige Meade (Dimples)
Sammy Williams (Probs)
Michael Ajao (Mayhem)
Nick Frost (Ron)
Maggie McCarthy (Margaret)
Gina Antwi (Dionne)
Natasha Jonas (Gloria)
Flaminia Cinque (Italian woman)
Selom Awadzi (Tonks)
Adam Buxton, Haneen Hammou (documentary voices over)
Paisley Thomas (Roxanne)
Jacey Salles (Biggz’s mum)
Yvonne D’Alpra (Pest’s nan)
Karl Collins (Dennis’ dad)
Joey Ansah, Adam Leese (policemen)
Lee Long (Patrick)
Jermaine Smith (Beats)
Dylan Charles (police constable)
David Cann (detective superintendent)
Terry Notary (lead creature performer and movement coach)
Karl Baumann, Tony Christian, Donna William, Arti Shah (creature performers)

UK 2011©
88 mins

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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