So I recently watched the horror-comedy Attack the Block, a British movie about an alien invasion of the inner-city projects. Yes, it’s as preposterous as it sounds, and while far from brilliant, it’s a fun ninety minutes.
However, I made a classic internet mistake after I saw the movie: I read other people’s comments on the film.
Now, it’s perfectly acceptable to hate on a movie as flawed as Attack the Block, and I say that as a horror-movie aficionado. But many comments went beyond “the acting sucked” or “too many plot holes.” I’m talking about the many variations on the theme, “I hated the movie’s heroes. They were actually villains.”
Who are they talking about?
Well, as I said, the film is set in the inner city, specifically London. Most of the characters are ethnic minorities. And yes, they start out as thuggish before gaining some redemption through heroism and self-sacrifice at the end. In this sense, they follow the recognizable path of the flawed hero.
Still, many viewers weren’t buying it and, in the words of one especially virulent commentator, “I wanted the little bastards to die and hoped the aliens would eat them.”
Is this just empty ranting about a silly little movie? For the most part, yes. However, as I’ve written before, pop culture gives us a window into what people are thinking. The way that characters and ethnicities are portrayed in film and television has an impact on society. Where else do you think our most powerful stereotypes come from?
So let’s look at what made people so uncomfortable about these British teens. Was it because they indulged in criminal behavior? Well, that hardly seems sufficient. Their petty hooliganism pales in comparison, for example, to the truly murderous activities of the Corleone family in the Godfather movies. And I doubt any viewer ever said, “I hated the Corleones and wanted them to die.” And no, I am not comparing Attack the Block to the Godfather, beyond this one point.
Is it because the “heroes” of the Godfather dress nicely and live upper-class lifestyles? That might have something to do with it.
But isn’t it more likely that the Attack the Block kids are what we have been conditioned to fear? They are dark-skinned teens who want your wallet. As such, they are far more terrifying than guys who chop the heads off horses and strangle their family members.
In essence, we have a hard time accepting non-white heroes unless they are unquestionable paragons of virtue (and most of those parts go to Morgan Freeman). Flawed characters or anti-heroes have a hard time earning our empathy if they are minorities.
Even at this late date in film history, we insist that the villain always dresses in black. His skin color, apparently, isn’t much lighter.
By the way, let me be clear about one thing. I love the Godfather movies, despite their glaring lack of killer aliens.