I’m no expert on UK culture, but it seems that for the first decade or so of the 21st century, there was a (real or perceived) increase in adolescent crime attributed to youths dressed in hoodies who seemingly adopted what they saw as the dangerous elements of hip-hop culture, reveling in a brash, violent, “gangsta” lifestyle. This spawned a wave of hysteria reflected in a sub-genre of thriller films known as “hoodie horror,” which included the likes of Citadel, Eden Lake, The Expelled and Heartless — not to mention Them (Ils) from France, a country that suffered a simultaneous hoodie hysteria — all featuring adolescent thugs (sometimes hooded, sometimes not) menacing upright citizen protagonists.
For the most part, those films’ bad guys weren’t minorities, so the fact that the upright protagonists were always white didn’t strike any particular racial chords. However, the home invasion thriller Cherry Tree Lane bucks that trend with disturbing ease and aplomb. In it, the two primary antagonists, part of a group of five antisocial youths terrorizing a white family, are black. Rian (Jumayn Hunter) is the sadistic leader, seeking vengeance on a teen named Sebastian, who ratted out his cousin and got him sent to jail for dealing drugs. Rian and his other cousin, Asad (Ashley Chin), along with their white comrade Teddy (Sonny Muslim), visit Sebastian’s home to settle the score, but finding Sebastian away, they decide to hold his parents, Mike (Tom Butcher) and Christine (Rachael Blake), captive until his return.
It thus feels like an uninspired, racially tone-deaf riff on Funny Games, reveling in the ugliness and realism of the captor-hostage dynamic as it plays out in real time (or a close approximation thereof), subjecting us not only to the abusive nature of Rian’s power trip, but also to the tedious minutiae of the villains making themselves at home while awaiting Sebastian’s arrival: watching TV, eating snacks, lounging, rummaging through the homeowners’ belongings, just being basic asshole guests.
I’m not one to say that black folk should never be villains or anything like that, but as a filmmaker, you have to be cognizant of the optics of the racial dynamics in your movie. If black actors and actresses as a whole disproportionately play lower class criminals in showbiz, you have to be aware of how you’re feeding that stereotype. And while black roles have improved over the years, the thug stereotype remains — both in film and in society as a whole — so if you prominently feature these sorts of roles with little or nothing to counter them, chances are you’ll be more heavily scrutinized. Ain’t racism a bitch?
And upon closer examination, Cherry Tree Lane fails the sniff test. Rian in particular is a grotesque racial caricature of Birth of a Nation proportions, sporting that film’s age-old stereotypes of ignorance, lasciviousness, propensity for violence and criminal inclination, combined with the more modern hip-hop boilerplate of a foul-mouthed, weed-headed, braggadocious, materialistic, hyper-macho, abusive thug with an inferiority complex born of low income, drug addiction, gangs and a broken home.
He’s an irredeemable fiend who leers at Christine like the Big Bad Wolf eyeing a pork chop and proceeds to rape her, drudging up another touchy topic: the ugly history of accusations of impropriety by black men when dealing with white women. If that weren’t cringe-worthy enough, when Rian’s girlfriend Beth shows up late in the film, it turns out she’s also white…and he proceeds to punch her in the face when she dares chafe at him raping Christine.
Asad, meanwhile, is the “sympathetic” baddie because he thinks rape is uncalled for (granted, he’s unwilling to stop it) and because he’s hesitant to kill someone (granted, he’s OK with one of his accomplices doing it). Somebody get the Nobel committee on the line, stat! In the end, the only member of the home invading group who’s seen as innocent is Beth’s pre-teen brother, who tags along for no apparent reason other than to serve as the embodiment of uncorrupted youth. And yes, he’s white.
I’m not saying that writer-director Paul Andrew Williams (whose previous film, the excellent horror-comedy The Cottage is about as far from this as possible) is racist or anything, but Cherry Tree Lane provides little to prevent us from speculating about any prejudices that may have bled through. For instance, why, of all the “hoodie horror” movies, does this one feature black bad guys? Is it because the added drug element turns the characters from casual, boy-next-door no-goodniks to hardened, “real” (read: black) criminals? Who knows, but Williams needs to be culturally aware enough to realize that such questions will arise from these portrayals.
Ultimately, Cherry Tree Lane is an exploitation film in the worst sense, adding fuel to social and racial tensions while simultaneously profiting from them. It plays like one of those alarmist “moral panic” films of yesteryear that capitalized on the mainstream paranoia of the era: the marijuana craze of the ’30s, biker gangs of the ’50s, hippie cults of the ’60s and the “Satanic Panic” of the ’80s. The opening scene alone, in which the camera ominously glides up the cushy, hedge-lined walkway toward the front door of this upper-middle class home on the idyllically-named Cherry Tree Lane, embodies the sense that something dark (Literally?) is headed this way. IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU!
If you want to cleanse your palate from this tedious, ugly, inflammatory home invasion fare, follow it up with the infinitely superior British flick Attack the Block, which likewise features a group of young, minority “hoodies.” However, while they’re not shown to be little angels, they’re at least portrayed as human and worthy of sympathy and understanding. Heck, they even save the day. The horror.