District 9

After all the hype, and the promise of a powerfully political sci-fi movie, of course I had to see District 9.  In many ways it’s an enjoyable film, and if it had been set on Mars or in another galaxy far, far away, I think it would have deserved the laudatory treatment it’s receiving. However, there are several reasons why I think District 9 doesn’t deserve uncritical praise. This post contains spoilers, so continue at your own risk.

My biggest concern is that there’s some disturbing actual racism being depicted in the film that’s supposed to be an allegory for racism. The film’s premise is a kind of species-ist apartheid, i.e. legal, political, and social segregation by race, complete with refugee camps becoming concentration camps, violent policing by an out-group, widespread social stigma, and a prohibition on interracial sexual conduct. I think it’s important that the director and writer, Neil Blomkamp, is white, and an Afrikaaner. The hero is also white, also an Afrikaaner, and while he’s somewhat buffoonish and selfish, he’s still the only human who has any sympathy for the aliens. In the beginning of the film we watch as mostly black South Africans express thoughtless racism and xenophobia. Are we supposed to believe that these are the same people who fought against the institutions of apartheid in their own country? Or are we supposed to believe that the arrival of aliens two decades ago somehow supplants or replaces South Africa’s actual history?

The aliens show up as pathetic refugees, with no history of violence or oppression by colonial powers. In reality, the segregation of South Africa that occurred in 1948 had been the product of three centuries of brutal oppression of the brutal administrative bureaucracy by white colonists (first Dutch, then English: both enslaved and murdered the native inhabitants going back to the 17th Century!) The aliens are violent, addicted to cat food, and lacking in any ambition or willpower of their own. (One of the experts suggests that there may be a missing alien elite and that these are the unintelligent ‘worker bees’ who cannot act without their natural aristocracy.) So in large part, the irritation that Johannesburg residents feel at being saddled with this needy and and inferior Other is justified by biology and by a lack of history that would make them responsible for the difficult situation of their new neighbors. If this is supposed to be a historical allegory about apartheid, we’re conveniently missing a lot of history here.

Blomkamp is clearly disgusted by his fellow human beings, by man’s inhumanity to man, or inhumanity to the inhuman. But his disdain is split between Multinational United, a  generic multinational corporation, and a Nigerian criminal syndicate. Both are only interested in exploiting the aliens to gain access to their weapon technology. There are several moments when black Nigerians are depicted as the stupidly evil cousins of the white businessmen, as when the warlord wishes to eat the same organs that the corporate scientists wish to harvest and study. The Nigerians witchcraft is supposed to be the flipside of the corporation’s science, but it ends up enforcing some pretty unappealing stereotypes about primitivism and rationality.

There are two ways to tell speculative political allegories: you can tell a familiar story in an unfamiliar place, or you can tell an unfamiliar story in a familiar place. Gulliver’s Travels, for instance, satirizes the political trends of Swift’s time by depicting them in strange and distant lands, so that we can see their absurdity or cruelty from a new perspective. In movies like AI, The Minority Report, or I am Legend, we see the near future of our own world with certain trends extrapolated and caricatured. This kind of near future science fiction speculates about the development of the familiar by showing us how strange it might become if we continue as we have been.

District 9 tells a familiar story in a familiar place, and I think it suffers for that. It’s parasitic on a great deal of political history, especially in South Africa, but it doesn’t supply any insights that would justify its casual use of such touchy subjects, while at the same time it whitewashes much of the important backstory of apartheid. Wikus van de Merwe is half Adolph Eichmann and half Lawrence of Arabia. Multinational United is half Monsanto and half Blackwater. Perhaps the most interesting character is the alien leader, Christopher Johnson, who we hear from very little: he’s one-third Nelson Mandela, one-third William Wallace, and one-third Mad Scientist. The whole movie has a certain Dances with Wolves vibe. It’s supposed to be good because it’s about Important Themes. Yet it tells us little about real problems, while at least the execrable Dances reminded many Americans that they’d been rooting for the bad guys in their games of Cowboys and Indians.

10 thoughts on “District 9”

  1. Well, Wikus is not particularly appealing as the protagonist, being almost wholly selfish and don't forget the African guy who takes Wikus' old job and reveals MNU's misdeeds at the end of the movie. Nonetheless, you're right that the racism/speciesism is pretty complicated, partly because of the subtle shifts between documentary and regular film … Read Morestyles. It took reading interviews with Blonkamp for some of the racial issues to become a bit clearer, such as the tension between Afrikaans Wikus and his English South African father-in-law. In addition, the short film 'Alive in Jo'burg' that gave rise to this movie involved actual interviews with black South Africans regarding Nigerians, etc., edited to be about space aliens. So there is a lot of contemporary racism mixed in with the apartheid allegory

  2. I was also struck by Peter Jackson's characterization of what he liked about Blonkamp – that most young directors make movies about the movies they've seen, while Blonkamp makes movies about his life. This seems right, so the messiness of the allegory bothers me less because racial politics in South Africa is that messy. Besides, the fight scene with the power armor was real sweet.

  3. Apparently there's massive anti-Nigerian nationalism in South Africa. Nigerians are economic immigrants and are not much different than any other new ethnicity, with a mix of skilled workers and unskilled workers who are shut out of the labor market and turn to illicit trades. It seems remarkably insenstitive to me for Blomkamp to simultaneously decontextualize anti-immigrant rhetoric (the interviews about Nigerians re-purposed to be about the aliens) and then depict Nigerians according to those stereotypes. Rather than simply remaining silent on real problems, Blomkamp actively disguises real problems to make an entertaining movie.

    That seems like more evidence of my indictment of the film as "parasitic" rather than "ameliorative" science fiction. There's lots of room in Hollywood for entertaining schlock that makes no effort to engage in amelioration: I am an unrepentant fan of explosions and witty writing with no purpose. It's only a problem when we start transforming Important Issues into more grist for our entertaining schlock mill.

  4. Depicting racism is not the same as being racist. The Nigerians are an unwanted people, which is why they live in District 9 WITH THE ALIENS. While the warlord is an unsympathetic guy, his desire to become an alien is allegorical for the way Nigerians are already treated in South Africa. The fact that he is a criminal in order to gain power is no more racist than saying that Stringer Bell, Avon Barksdale, the Polish dock workers or The Greek make "The Wire" racist. He has little choice if he is ever going to live a life of consequence. The fact is that he has to choose between being relevant and evil or another pathetic refugee is not supposed to make him sympathetic. If it did make him sympathetic, THAT would be skirting the reality of how identity politics works in the cauldron of the real world by giving it a Hollywood gloss. Racism in South Africa pushes the Nigerians to be predators on those they have most in common. Why? Because they'll take what they can get. Same thing with the Black South Africans interviewed in the beginning of the film, who act like poor whites did in Reconstruction-era America.

    It should also be noted that the Nigerian warlord CLEARLY is a mirror of MNU (which I love to think is not coincidentally the initials for Manchester United, a little globalization of football in-joke). Wikkus' Father-in-Law clearly wants to a.) use alien weapons to become more powerful b.) merge human and alien together for his own purposes and c.) treat those beneath him as expendable for his own purposes.

    In short, the business conglomerate that is supposed to be the cornerstone of "the new South Africa" is just like the Nigerians, EXCEPT with the power to choose to do otherwise with much less consequence.

    The dude who's ordered to chop Wikkus' arm off in the Nigerian tent is essentially the same as the white dude at ManU headquarters who forces Wikkus to pull the trigger and kill the alien.

    It should also be noted that the LEAST sympathetic characters in the whole movie are the "Executive Outcomes" like mercenaries, who are white. And as Dan pointed out, the person who is the most courageous in the film is actually Wikkus' assistant who blows the whistle on the whole thing and unapologetically does his time for doing so. Let me add, that everyone at MNU treats him like an idiot child the whole film, and it is revealed that this racist attitude is unjustified as it is the racists who are incompetent morons. His stealing of their files so easily is reminiscent of South Africa's recent episode where nuclear material was VERY nearly stolen out of one of their facilities. Despite their unjustified racism towards that guy, AND their utter incompetence, the only decent, intelligent person still ends up IN PRISON.

    As for the elements of the complicated history of how racism actually played out in Africa, it seems to me that you presume that a) the film is not "being parasitic" (others might use the term "utilizing," but they'd have to be interested in being charitable critics) on a familiar racial dynamic to say something challenging generally about human nature and/or b) that it is somehow possible to give an account of these added complexities and still tell a watchable story in two hours and/or c.) that the upshot of this film will not encourage people to learn more about South Africa but instead people will believe they know about South Africa from seeing this movie DESPITE THE PRESENCE OF A GIANT SPACE SHIP HOVERING OVER JOHANNESBURG.

    In short, your review seems to equate "District 9" with films like "The Peacemaker" or "Iron Eagle." I think if you watch those films and then you watch "District 9" there will be an obvious difference between caricature and character. "District 9" is unequivocally populated with the latter and not the former.

  5. Dan rightly compares my critical coverage of District 9 to my mostly-defensive discussion of the Obama Socialist Joker poster.

    I do think they're both parasitic, but I think that the Obama poster could have supplied amelioration in the form of a de-icon-ification of the President's image. As things have developed, it now looks like the original artist was basically calling Obama an Uncle Tom for picking Rahm Emmanuel, so much of that potential destabilization of the image is lost.

    I agree with Steve that the Nigerians are a mirror of MNU. (I said so in the original post) I also agree that Thomas, the black trainee, is the most innocent character.

    However, I think the comparison to _The Wire_ is telling: if we consider how much more fully fleshed out the ethnically diverse characters are in The Wire, we can start to see how differently a narrative might treat a fraught racial setting. This is in part because David Simon had a lot of true experiences to draw on, while Neil Blomkamp spent most of his adult life in Canada and was drawing on childhood memories of Johannesburg. Rather than Simon's journalist eye, we get an infantile caricature of the racial dynamic there.

    It seems that you both feel that such a caricature can be forgiven for supplying deep insights into the human condition. I'm not sure that "different = bad" counts as such an insight.

    I notice that neither of you respond to the way that the biological-inferiority of the 'drone' aliens justifies the South African's racism, and that we're literally presented with a distinct caste of alien who has been operating in secret in order to break that stereotype. Any comments on that aspect of the film?

  6. It occurs to me that the best analogy is perhaps to _Slumdog Millionaire_. An unoriginal story that is vaulted to popularity by its claim to represent deep and abiding themes in the 'Third World.'

    In my post I claimed that South Africa is familiar, and in a certain sense it is since we hear and read a lot about it. But we don't see it much, and it may be that such films are appealing because they convey massive amounts of visual information about *visually* unfamiliar places. We get to see what slums look like without being made too uncomfortable about our own relative wealth: call it cinematic poverty tourism.

  7. I'll need to see the movie again, but I think that the 'drone-caste' idea was given as a theory during the documentary portion of the film, while it is not something to which Christopher even alludes. His appearance certainly didn't suggest any caste dimorphism.

  8. Apologies for the delay in responding to this (very good) post. On the whole, I agree with all of your insights here. I would have included many of them in my own review of District 9 but I was trying to avoid spoilers. I still really liked the film, but the first conversation I had about it upon leaving the theater with my friend was about the actual racism evident in the depictions of the Nigerian warlords. (Cannibalism? Voodoo? Really? Sigh.) It's obviously not a perfect film, but it's a good film, I think.

    I wanted to remark on your comment about Blomkamp's special variety of revisionist South African history (or, at least, highly edited history). As it turns out, Blomkamp is only 29 years old, meaning he was only about 10 years old when apartheid ended, and his famnily relocated to Vancouver when he was 18. So, he neither had much experience of "actual" apartheid in SA nor did he really experience post-apartheid SA. There's a lot of literature out there on South Africa's younger generation and how distant they are in their political consciousness from SA's history of apartheid. I think the hit-or-miss nature of his film's apartheid allegory is characteristic of his generation. That's not an apology, just an observation. It might also explain the carelessness with which he depicted black South Africans in District 9. He clearly has a strong sense of the collective guilt that most contemporary Afrikaaners bear, but it's a guilt that is kind of generic, a bit misinformed, not very nuanced. In a lot of ways, I think it resembles the kind of post-racism attitude you see in Southern whites born after, say, 1970. They (we) accept, unreflectively, that racism is a "bad" thing, but still don't have a comprehensive grasp of the complex phenomenology of non-legal racism.

    So, what I liked about the film really had to do more with the analogy between racism and speciesism, and the way in which Blomkamp problematized the question of "the human." I liked it because it upset the intuition (that a lot of people have) that "racism" is a natural and inevitable consequence of different human groups coming into contact with one another. Blomkamp's film shows, I think, that the problem is not human differences– which can be oversome, as was ostensibly the case with the downfall of apartheid– but rather the problem is a certain attitude toward and about "difference" that can be remolded and activated against whomever or whatever comes to occupy the place of the "Other."

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