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!