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.