Sunday, June 13, 2010

Thoughts about District 9

We just rented District 9 (I know, we are totally right on the pulse of what is NEW and EXCITING in movies). It was good, I liked it a lot, but I did have one little nagging thought that I wanted to get out about it here.

If you haven't seen the movie, I do recommend it. The best sci-fi is a commentary on aspects of modern society and this is no exception. The story is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, where an alien spacecraft has been stranded for several years. When humans are finally able to get into the ship, they find thousands of sick and malnourished aliens living in filth. The humans bring the alien population into Jo-burg, and after violence between aliens and humans, the aliens are relocated to District 9.

District 9 quickly becomes a terrible slum. Humans have no respect for these beings, and alien breeding is restricted (unauthorized young are killed), aliens are killed and arrested with basically no provocation, and a black market trade of cat food (which is evidently an addictive drug to the aliens) is controlled by a Nigerian gang.

Our main character Wikus van de Merwe is charged with responsibility for the forced removal of the aliens to another camp farther from the city. During a raid to get the aliens' signatures on their notices of eviction, Wikus is infected with an alien virus that begins to turn him into an alien.

The allusion in District 9 is fairly blatant. Anyone familiar with South African Apartheid history will recognize the similarities to the forced removal of residents from District 6 in Cape Town. But you don't need to be too familiar with the history in order to recognize the way in which the aliens represent how POC have been and are treated across the world. For example:
And so on.

They even have a derogatory name - prawn.

The aliens (we never hear a name that they might call themselves) are shown in basically the worst light possible - drunk on cat food, stupid, violent, living in filth. It reminded me of the way in which POC have been portrayed and are still portrayed (think of images from ghettos and slums across the world). It is difficult to sympathize with creatures that live like this.

This is a genius comparison to how we are invited to view modern human inhabitants of slums. How could people live like that in the garbage and filth? How could they become prostitutes or crackheads or alcoholics? How can they be so violent? Why can't they get their lives together?

The implication is that slum inhabitants choose to live like that, which is of course furthest from the truth. Just like humans trapped in the cycle of hopeless poverty, the aliens have no means by which to gain an increased standard of living. If you have no prospects and no hope, why not do crack? At least it provides a way to escape your situation for a few minutes.

I liked the movie. I thought the comparisons were excellent. But after all that, here is where I kept getting stuck. We hear several times in the movie that the aliens are like hive creatures, and all of the alien elite have been killed by a virus or something. Because the elite are dead, the remainder of the aliens have no one to lead them and they fall hopelessly into the conditions we see them in during the movie.

This reminded me of the excuses that people make to explain why human populations live in slums. "They can't help it." "They're less intelligent." "It's their lifestyle." These excuses allow white people to forgive themselves for any role they may have played in creating the slum conditions, and to excuse themselves from any responsibility to help slum dwellers increase their standard of living.

However, the lies that we use to explain poverty are demonstrably not true. As should not need to be said, no human population has ever been proven to be less intelligent than any other. It may be horrifying for many to contemplate, but if put in the same position, any human would behave in the same way. Violence, drugs, disease, filth - these are symptoms of hopelessness, not of any innate psychological or physiological difference between the haves and the have-nots.

So are the aliens really just stupid hive-minders who can't help themselves? If they are, then the analogy between the aliens and human ghettos fails in a spectacular and disturbing way. All of the alien behavior we see on screen is not, then, due to their circumstances (at least not entirely). If the aliens are worker drones who need someone to lead them, doesn't this hearken back to the colonialist mind-set of a population in need of a firm, paternal hand of guidance?

Because that rationalization is what got us to where we are today.

I don't have any kind of a big conclusion to this meandering little thought, I just wanted to throw it out there. If any of you have seen the movie, what did you think of it?


  1. Nate and I watched this awhile ago, and I thought it was very interesting (though I hear they're making an unnecessary sequel - boo).

    I'd be interested to hear more of your take on Wikus's transformation into an alien - and how District 9 fits into the ongoing tradition of narratives about minority groups where the audience sees only through the eyes of a privileged white (and quite often male) character.

  2. I just finished watching District 0, per your recommendation (Yay Netflix Instant Watch!)

    You bring up an interesting insight about paternalism and the ghetto. I will have to think on it a bit more.

    But what stood out to me as mcuh more glaring and troubling was the way Nigerians were portrayed as startingly similar to the "prawns." Nigerians as weird voodoo cannibals. Nigerians as merciless thugs and terrorists. Nigerians as pimps and prostitutes. Nigerians as primarily responsible for "drugtrade" in the Alien community. Nigerians being killed graphically and satisfyingly up close and personal (particularly getting to see the lead "crip" Nigerian's head explode on camera. And seriously what's with the Disabled Guy as Villain trope?) Nigerians speaking in SUBTITLES just like those weird clicking and grunting "prawns" who speak entirely in subtitles. Nigerians who, unlike the prawns, were speaking perfectly good english by the way....

    I did get the whole part about using the Alien metaphor to represent a global history of colonial oppression overall.. but what horrified me was the uncritical use of PRESENT day racist memes to create a subliminal link between African peoples TODAY and all that is alien and grotesque and Other.

    In short I came away from this movie believing I finally understand exactly how White People see Black people: Literally as vaguely humanoid but nightmarishly ugly looking creatures who may or may not be smart enough to get their lives together if they weren't so criminally inclined, hideous creatures that everybody wishes could be shipped off to another planet.

    I'm more than a little perturbed.

  3. @Ina - Yes, totally agree. I was hesitant to bring this up because I am really not up on the social situation in South Africa, but I was uncomfortable with the way both the Nigerians and the "voodoo" were portrayed (again, unsure what to call it? Voodoo obviously not the right term but closest analog to average American unfamiliar with African religions? Perhaps Vodun, which is a West African religion?)

    PARTICULARLY because this was written by a White South African.

    I thought that the way the movie depicted the Nigerians might be related to how that ethnic group is viewed in South Africa. You know, like referring to a Mexican or Hmong gang in the US? I'm not trying to excuse this - obviously hugely problematic - but I wasn't sure how to comment on it because I don't really know anything about the social structure in South Africa.

    However, the Nigerian government was NOT PLEASED, and actually banned the movie from Nigeria. (

    I guess I had sort of glossed over this part of the movie because I wasn't sure how to react to it. I should have mentioned it. Bad me.

    Your last paragraph I think is really similar to what I was inferring in the post, but you do it more straightforwardly. I think many white people break POC into categories - nice (safe), and nasty (dangerous). Those nice black people who live in the ranch house down the street? Safe. But put those same black people in the ghetto, and they become dangerous, fulfilling your description. "May or may not be smart enough to get their lives together if they weren't so criminally inclined" is, I think, a PERFECT description of the way white people react to the poverty-stricken, particularly POC.

    I had interpreted the movie as playing on that trope by making it large - to me it was impossible to sympathize with basically ANY human in this movie, demonstrating the cruelty and stupidity of the humans towards the aliens in an inexcusable way. To me, it was saying that to behave in this way towards another being is wrong and dangerous. That's one reason why I was unsettled by the implication that the aliens couldn't help themselves. It kind of un-did the message I took from the rest of the film.

    So to me casting the aliens as minority stand-ins was a way to expose racism in a way that might spark some larger realizations for some people. Perhaps I am giving those people too much credit, and now they'll just think gross alien = African without any deeper thinking.

    Sigh. Probably am giving people too much credit.

    @Layne - working on it, stay tuned! Although I've been putting off watching Avatar.

  4. For me the aliens as stand-ins for Blacks and other Savages was the "cover" message, the "but they have feelings too" was the obvious takeaway. I think subtextually, the movie functions as an Apologia for Apartheid by playing on basic White Supremacist fantasies of miscegenation in particular.

    My experience of the movie: "Look at these Aliens! That's exactly how those gross ass Africans look to us! Don't you SEE??? Would you want to be hanging around something gross like that? Can you really blame us for wanting to separate and contain them?? Now Watch the horrific results of miscegenation, watch what happens when you get too close to one, do you see???? See how vulnerable we are to infection?? Now look over here at the Nigerians. And now look at the Aliens. Now look at the Nigerians again! See how desperate those Nigerians are to miscegenate with those prawns?? And with our Hero Too!! They;re freaky cannibals!! Look at our Hapless White Hero! Our Hapless White Hero caught the alien cooties And those MONEY HUNGRY LYING EVIL JEWS, WHOOPS, I mean the GOVERNMENT are trying to infect us all just to make a buck!!! NOW do you understand why we did what we did?????"

    That's what I took from this movie. I don't know alot about the particulars of South African Apartheid, but from everything I've read about White Supremacy movements, this movie basically played on every single white supreamcist fear... That Africans/I mean Aliens/I mean Africans are dangerous and desperate to interbreed with/cannibalize whites. That the people in control of the government and media (ie., the JEWS) have a master plan to exploit the White Race's vulnerability to Alien/African Contagion. And Apartheid or Genocide is the only safe solution.

  5. OMG, you will *hate* Avatar. I liked it when I saw it in the theater, but only because the 3D effects (and Sam Worthington) were so, so pretty. I am almost afraid to watch it on the small screen.

  6. (From Ina, via email:)

    Lady Instructor I found a blog quote from Womanist Musings that sums up perfectly how I felt about District 9. It came from this (completely unrelated) blog post:

    The quote is the very last sentence:

    "There are many ways to learn about racism and only someone committed to its perpetuation chooses to do so in a way that reifies its existence."

    In other District 9-like news,
    I live in Seattle and just yesterday a familiar scene unfolded in the news. There is a clip of the incident in the local news site Seattle Pi and on youtube; a white police officer struggling to arrest a black female teenager (for jaywalking), who is struggling to resist arrest (for jaywalking). At one point the onlookers accuse the officer of trying to strangle her. Not sure if this happens on camera or off as the action jumps around. Her friend, another black female (another jaywalker), physically intervenes by pushing the police officer and tries to remove his grasp on her. The police officer responds by punching the second girl in the face, then continues attempting to arrest the first girl (for jaywalking). Notice the (stunned? apathetic?) passivity of the onlookers who don't know what to do but record the event on their cell phones. Notice the (nervous? amused?) staring of the lone white girl in the crowd. The grown man on younger female violence being done, and shown completely out of context is fairly disturbing, but even more disturbing are the comments to the story on the news site and on youtube. There is near universal condemnation of the black females as "obvious thugs" and "why the f*ck didn't they just do what he said?" IT is clear that the commenters are actually OVERJOYED to see a black girl being slammed and slapped around so.

    Hopefully the links are still active: