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Yet Another Extraordinary Day In Da Hood... In The UK... At The Movies

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by Wendy Okoi-Obuli
May 23, 2013 11:35 AM
5 Comments
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Recently revisiting Attack The Block, the British film directed by Joe Cornish that won awards and the hearts of fans even outside the UK, I was reminded of a piece I posted on S&A in its early days (around the time I first heard about Attack The Block, incidentally) about British "urban" flicks and how they seem to provide a film career leg-up for some white filmmakers on the backs of black stereotypes. 


In that piece, I wrote: 

From the little that I hear and know, it seems black British filmmakers trying for years to get projects off the ground are more often than not knocked back; but, at the risk of sounding whiney, it seems that as soon as a white writer-director comes up with an "urban" tale involving guns... 

In 2004, Bullet Boy, directed by Saul Dibb and co-written by Dibb and Catherine Johnson, trotted out the predictable trope of rap music, drugs, guns and the seeming inevitability of crime and violence in the "ghetto"; while in 2006, Rollin' With The Nines directed by Julian Gilbey and co-written with Will Gilbey, rolled out the same theme but with a more mindless, blaxploitation flair. Thankfully, that same year Kidulthood, written, directed by, and starring Noel Clarke, came along and contextualised the same themes but made them more a tale of the disaffectation and restlessness of inner city youth, which seemed to resonate quite rousingly with that target audience, making it a UK box office success and leading to a sequel and a BAFTA win for Clarke. None of these films were particularly up my street, but I can't help but wonder who Bullet Boy and Rollin With The Nines were written and made for - and suspect it had more to do with band-wagon riding "film execs" than any real demographic who might actually want to pay to see them. And now along comes 1 Day, written and directed by Penny Woolcock. If it sounds as if I might feel that Dibb and Gilbey were unlikely storytellers, far removed from the subject of their films, then Woolcock, a 59 year old white woman, seems right out of the ball park.


While I'd certainly like to see more black stories told by black people, I have nothing against white people telling stories involving black people so long as they don't keep telling the same narrow, and often wildly exaggerated, story. 

Granted, first time director Cornish has certainly taken a more creative route with his hood movie, as did Woolcock last year with 1 Day (Attack The Block is a sci-fi comedy, and 1 Day a musical hip-hopera), but both of them were conceived under very similar circumstances. The following is an excerpt from an interview in The Guardian in which Cornish recounts how the idea for Attack the Block came about:
A few years ago, Joe Cornish was mugged near his home in Stockwell, south London. It was, he says, a traumatic experience. "I love where I live and I constantly find myself defending it, and suddenly this very difficult thing happens. My first impetus was to try and get beyond the stereotype. And also, somewhere in my head, to escape into the places I used to as a child, when I'd project Hollywood fantasies onto my everyday life." Cornish did both. He investigated the kind of kids who robbed him, talking to children on the street and in youth clubs. And he injected a shot of film fantasy into a world generally treated with some disdain by directors; a vision that would trump most pre-teen dreams. "It kind of what Mr Spielberg was doing with ET. Those dinner scenes are kind of like a Ken Loach film, and then this little alien pops up. Yet it's still realism."

Hmm... where have I heard this before...? Oh yes! That's how Woolcock came up with her idea for 1 Day! After she got mugged by some young black kids! 

As quoted in my earlier post from an interview Woolcock gave to Channel 4, her motivations include "People on the margins. Looking carefully at what seems familiar and breaking it up. Looking at what seems frightening and exotic and making sense of it." 

Truthfully, fear, anger and exoticism (as much as it may rankle, given the very few instances of British films featuring mainly black casts) are legitimate catalysts for creativity but I wonder if either Woolcock or Cornish would have gone into creativity overdrive if they'd been mugged by white youths or if they'd just have put it down to a bad experience and got on with the rest of their creative lives? Better yet, would they have ever thought of making a film with a mainly (or even half) black cast if the theme didn't centre on the exoticism of crime and/or inner city hood life as they see it? 

Having said that, it sounds like Cornish did (does?) actually live in the kind of neighbourhood he portrays in the film (or at least near a block of council flats) and aliens landing in a London council estate does sound kind of funny. Like I said before, Cornish and Woolcock were much more creative and perhaps even valiant in their attempts to portray urban life than the average white British blaxploitation filmmaker but, with black British actors having a hard time getting regular film work (especially at home), it's a little disconcerting that British filmmakers (black and white) still only see black characters in film in connection with crime and and social deprivation - the assumption being, perhaps, that that's the only way film audiences are prepared to see black British characters. 


I got an email from a Facebook friend and reader, asking if any black screenwriters on this side of the pond were writing a story influenced by Tidjane Thiam, the first black CEO of insurance company Prudential, or any British blue chip company - sort of a high finance story set in London rather than Wall Street . Don't get me wrong, I don't necessarily only want to see movies in which black characters are only overachieving saints any more than I want them to just be dysfunctional stereotypes (some interesting, complex characters with depth and breadth would be nice though), but my first thought in response to the email was that if a black screenwriter is penning a story based on someone like Thiam, or any black British investment banker, or one of our black MPs, or lawyers, or... then it probably won't see the light of day because... well, it's not realistic, is it? Pushes the boundaries of plausibility just a little too far. I mean, if we're going to tell our own stories, then we should really stick to, well, you know... our own stories, right? If, however, a white filmmaker comes up with the story of a black CEO whose childhood mates entice him into a  hybrid of hood/white collar crime (because, of course, he would have been brought up on some such disturbingly exotic manner), maybe it would  stand a... Hmm, wait... maybe I should keep that one for myself!

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5 Comments

  • ALM | May 24, 2013 8:36 PMReply

    "Attack the Block" is a good movie. It has a lot of underlying messages about actions and consequences, etc. You should rent "Attack the Block".

  • AccidentalVisitor | May 23, 2013 11:57 PMReply

    Wait....so you haven't seen "Attack the Block" but that was the film you wanted to use as an example?

  • deecreative | May 23, 2013 11:18 PMReply

    It's interesting, I have literally stumbled upon movies with black british actors or black british movies my entire life. I saw 'Secrets and Lies' with Marianne Jean Baptiste when I was in high school. I think being a black American and vice versa, we are all interested in the experiences of black people around the world, especially in Great Britain (which is English speaking and the U.S. has a bond with). I've seen 1 day, Kidulthood and Adulthood and I saw Attack the Block, I've also seen Top Boy, Baby Mama(yes that movie lol), not to mention I'm in love with anything Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sophie Okenedo play in(they are great actors). Oh! I'm from MD and we all did a jaw drop when we found out Idris Elba is British. I said all of that to run down the movies which most are 'hood movies' and you know what? I think the UK should just stop! Even from an American perspective it's like ok, can we see more Secrets and Lies rather than Adulthood? If I want to see what life is like for people of African descent in other countries it needs to be a total perspective. Black people in U.S. are not all in the hood and neither are they in the UK. Americans and specifically black Americans are always interested in good british film, for one we can't get enough of the accent and two it's a country that is a slight tilt away from ours in terms of culture and governance. It's foreign but not so foreign, different but ehhhh we can still get with. I'm glad Luther is popular, let's see more actors in those roles.

  • Akimbo | May 23, 2013 6:41 PMReply

    Okay, you haven't even seen Attack the Block. There's nothing stereotypical about it. You could have made all the kids white and it would play exactly the same.

    As far as making a film about Tidjame Thiam, does he have a great, dramatic story? Or is he just a smart guy who worked hard and ascended the corporate ladder? That makes a great profile or article, but not a movie. If a film is about a CEO and the focus is his/her job, then they either have to win it against all odds or lose it dramatically. A movie that's just about any person with any job won't sell if there are no great stakes or excitement. Now if someone pens a story about a black CEO embroiled in a scandal, or blowing the whistle on shady business, or whose kid is kidnapped, or living a double-life, basically anything OTHER than playing the corporate game properly, then you've got a movie.

    So weird that this article ran on the same day the "why are black people so snooty" one ran. Both are too intent on making a specific, wrongheaded point (black people only want to see rich black characters vs white people only want to see poor black characters) .

  • miktal | May 23, 2013 12:30 PMReply

    If there was a law governing Blaxploitation, the Gilbey Brothers would be doing life. Two middle class white boys who admittedly don't live in nor know anyone from the "streets", so why their interest in it`s well being?? Their film, Rolling with the Nines, was truly atrocious and simply glorified the gun culture. They were told as much in their Q&A at a screening, which I sadly missed. Go to IMDb website and see what kind of work they did AFTER that. I managed to find ONE film where a black face had a small role. I`ve read all the bullshit from white film makers as to what inspired them to do this kind of film, and nothing is remotely believable.

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