Thursday, January 5, 2012

The best movie of 2011: "Attack the Block"

Over at the Thrill Fiction blog, A.Jaye already wrote a very good article about why this movie works so well. Here is a small sample:

In August a police death squad shot and killed Mark Douglas12. Two days later rioting began and spread throughout England. The media response was more savage than the prior student protests13.

12 Since 1969 British police have killed an average one black person every 15 days. No police officer has been charged in over 1000 deaths.

The media have hijacked the riots as a ‘looter’s day out’. They have ignored the evidence of police terrorism and pointed the finger at young as opportunistic criminals. The British public who can’t think for themselves agree.
You should read all of A.Jaye's essay. He's over in England, which is where the film is set, and so has more expertise than I on what is happening in that country. But one of the things that makes "Attack the Block" not just a fun, entertaining science fiction action film is the fact that it uses the tropes of the SF and action film genres to make an important, almost painful statement about the world in which the viewers now live. It's universal. The issues raised in the film are just as relevant and terrifying here in America as they are in England.

The premise is simple: A group of teenagers defend their neighborhood from an alien invasion. But the writer and director Joe Cornish uses this premise to make a powerful statement about the relationship between the police, and the public they're supposed to "serve and protect." About an hour into the film, after the protagonists have been chased by the aliens, who have committed acts of gruesome violence and destruction, the nurse character Sam implores the others to call the police. Moses, the leader of the teens, explains that going to the police for help is not an option for them. He says,
"Know what I reckon? I reckon the feds sent them anyway. Government probably bred those creatures to kill black boys. First they sent drugs to the Ends, then they sent guns. Now they sent monsters to get us. We ain't killing each other fast enough. So they decided to speed up the process."
A little later in the film, some figures are seen emerging from clouds of smoke. The stoner, Brewis, asks, "Is that more of the monsters?" To which Pest replies, "Sort of."

We then see the figures emerging from the smoke are police.

In America, we have been subjected to a War on Drugs which has escalated to the point that there are now more than 150 paramilitary style SWAT team attacks on peoples' homes every day. Millions of Americans have been subjected to illegal "stop and frisk" searches on city streets. A man can be arrested for "evading arrest" after being mistaken for a burglar in his own home. Even if the police have unlawfully detained you, according to the courts you are still required to submit to them. Knowing your rights is regarded as "suspicious behavior" to the police. Instances of police brutality often go unpunished.

These aren't soldiers -- they're police in Texas, posing with assault weapons and a drone.

And now some police forces are using drones -- those same unmanned devices our military is using to kill and maim people in the Middle East -- to keep tabs on the citizens they're allegedly protecting. Of course, the president just signed a bill which declares the entirety of the United States to be a war zone.

Meanwhile, several prosecutors have been caught withholding evidence in criminal cases.

Occasionally there is some pushback to all of this. Like, for instance, the "Stop Snitchin'" campaign. Basically, the idea is to not cooperate with a police force that has come to regard its employers -- the citizens -- as hostile enemies. As we've seen through the years, the police have become less a "peacekeeping" force, and more a "military" force. Yet, here is how CBS news characterized the movement to "stop snitchin'":
In most communities, a person who sees a murder and helps the police put the killer behind bars is called a witness. But in many inner-city neighborhoods in this country that person is called a "snitch."

"Stop snitchin'" is a catchy hip-hop slogan that embodies and encourages this attitude. You can find it on everything from rap music videos to clothing. "Stop snitchin'" once meant "don't tell on others if you're caught committing a crime."

But as CNN's Anderson Cooper reports for 60 Minutes, it has come to mean something much more dangerous: "don't cooperate with the police – no matter who you are."

As a result, police say, witnesses are not coming forward. Murders are going unsolved.
Anderson Cooper, the affluent, famous CNN anchor and daytime talk show host, is consistently shocked that people would have such an attitude. That is because his interactions with the police have been few and pleasant. Has he ever been stopped and frisked? Has his home ever been broken into by a SWAT team carrying assault rifles to serve a warrant to search for marijuana?

There is no attempt made to understand why it is that the "stop snitchin'" campaign might resonate with some people. But if every day of your life you are regarded as an enemy by the police, if you're constantly being stopped and frisked, if you're expected to submit to them regardless of the legality of their request, and you have no power at all to stop any of their potential abuses of power, then why would you trust them to help you under any circumstances?

Even, in the case of "Attack the Block," an alien invasion.

This hostility has led to suspicion all around. It's why the ideas that the CIA engineered AIDS, or that it introduced crack into low income neighborhoods to keep the residents there addicted and helpless have been able to gain so much traction. Again: If your everyday interactions with the government -- which is supposed to work for you (of the people, by the people, for the people) -- are marked by open hostility, why, then, would you trust that government to do anything in your best interest?

"Attack the Block" is a serious film about the consequences of more than 30 years of escalating tension between the police and the citizens they are supposed to be protecting. It uses the old science fiction alien invasion trope as a metaphor for the deterioration of relations between citizens and the government. In a life-threatening crisis, the people would rather try to fend for themselves than add to their troubles by going to the police for help. "Attack the Block" is entertaining, funny, exciting, and a bleak reflection of the world in which we now live. It asks us to examine the impact of the actions that the government is taking in the name of "protecting" us. Some of us, anyway. And to understand why it is that some of us feel so alienated from the government that we feel we can't go to them for help under any circumstances.

UPDATE @ 7:25 PST: Here is a graphic representation of the cavalier attitude that too many people in law enforcement have toward the use of deadly violence against the people they're sworn to protect:

Via Radley Balko's Agitator website, where he notes,
The glib sloganeering about how they apply violence is bad enough. But note that they chose the word use, instead of sell or deal.

Soldier police with drone picture source.


Miss Malevolent said...

I liked it. It was cheap but it was entertaining.

I didn't delve that deep into it's socio-economic urban message as you did...given I've lived in Detroit most of my life, I already know the mentality that was portrayed in the film. As well as the attitudes towards law enforcement.

Ricky Sprague said...

Thanks for the comment, Miss Malevolent.

One reason I enjoyed the film so much was that it did work as a great piece of entertainment -- it was a well-written and well-directed film, with compelling performances by talented actors. It was also obviously done with a low budget, so there was a lot more cleverness exhibited on the part of the filmmakers than was evident in, say, Green Lantern or Cowboys Ampersand Aliens. And it made its political points without being pedantic.

Plus, those aliens were genuinely creepy.

A.Jaye said...

I've been saying this for at least two years now: Ricky Sprague is the best writer in the English language as we speak. His wordcraft opens minds like a like a flower in bloom.

He cannot be denied.

Congratulations Sprague.

Ricky Sprague said...

Many thanks, A.Jaye. Such words mean a lot from a talented and thoughtful writer such as yourself.