On Becoming Alien – District 9

19 Sep

Jayna Brown – Guest Blogger

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The day this film came out I couldn’t wait to see it and I rushed to a matinee at the Mann Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. My expectations were high. I thought for sure that some kind of explicit conversation around race was going to happen. And in the form of my favorite genre: a dystopian allegory, and with aliens no less! I was looking forward to some damning criticism of post apartheid oppression, or an assessment of the truth and reconciliation hearings, or at least a bleak critique of white racism/human kind with some alien resistance and revolutionary possibility. My expectations were kept in check just a bit by the knowledge that Peter Jackson was the film’s producer. As can be seen with his King Kong debacle, Jackson’s race politics transparently cling to an earlier, simpler time for white men. Jackson’s racial politics, in fact, seem to be born of a time when boy scouts meant playing Indian and learning survival skills from a guide written by Robert Baden-Powell, Lieutenant General in the British Army during the Boer War. No doubt he read adventure stories as a small boy, filled with needle teethed Black African cannibals. I was also alert to the fact that the film’s director, Neil Blomkamp had directed short film versions of this narrative for XBox’s most popular video game Halo. He was all set to direct the film version with Peter Jackson producing until money fell through. Anyway, I worried about the video game influence and the Jackson effect much less than I should have and made my way happily into the theatre that afternoon for some alienating fun.

Original District 9 Short Film by Neil Blomkamp

Reader, watching District 9 I was crushed with disappointment. Here was another science fiction film with progressive pretensions that turns out to be yet another white man’s liberal redemption tale. As usual, a white man finds himself in the uncomfortable position of ‘becoming’ the oppressed, reluctantly has a change of heart, and becomes the champion of our victims, freeing them from captivity or danger or whatever. Ironically, it is when he is the most alien that he becomes the most ‘humane.’ Versions of this tale abound in film and literature (Shawshank Redemption, Children of Men) in which the white man’ noble self-sacrifice not only wins him back his humanity but allows him to transform into a savior figure. Why is it that on such potentially expansive conceptual grounds, from which we can imagine entirely new paradigms of existence, with anything possible from cross-species love to alternative forms of cooperation, technology, travel between worlds, etc. we get only the most bafflingly unevolved narratives with little or no exploration of political possibility? Of course I know the answer to this question, it is to re-stabilize, and/or recalibrate existing racial narratives in a new moment, but in this instance I still had hopes.

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I saw District 9 again with two good friends and, after hearing their very different responses to the film, I tried to calm down a bit, which is hard for me to do when faced with images of ravenous Nigerian war lords drooling for alien flesh. But I managed to gather a productive set of thoughts about this film. A more sophisticated skeletal narrative must have ended up on the cutting room floor, the no man’s land of so many potentially excellent films. Before I continue, here’s a bit of a plot summary for those who haven’t seen the film ( adapted from IMDB):

Through a documentary-style series of interviews, we learn that twenty years earlier an alien ship arrived above Johannesburg, South Africa and hovered for three months without any contact. Cutting into the ship, humans discover a large group of aliens who are malnourished and sick; one ‘expert’ gives the assessment that these are all ‘workers,’ with their leadership mysteriously missing. The creatures, called ‘prawns,’ are segregated apartheid style into a heavily militarized shantytown camp (shot in a Soweto township) called District 9. In the shantytown are a Nigerian gang, who as well as running an interspecies prostitution ring also trade in Alien weaponry, which can be used only by aliens and cannot be operated by humans.

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The movie takes place in 2010 when Multi-National United (MNU) is contracted to relocate the aliens. MNU is really just interested in the aliens’ advanced weaponry. An MNU field operative named Wikus van der Merwe is assigned the a task of relocating the aliens to another camp. While raiding an alien residence, Wikus handles an alien device that squirts a dark liquid into his face. Shortly after exposure to the liquid Wikus’s left arm mutates into a claw exactly like that of a prawn. Wikus is taken into custody by MNU, escapes, and seeks refuge with the alien, Chris Johnson. They agree to help each other.

Wikus steals some alien weaponry from Mumbo and his gang, with Mumbo vowing to capture Wikus and eat his mutated arm, (we have learned in the mocumentary that the Nigerians are avid practitioners of  ritual cannibalism) Wikus and Chris then launch an assault on MNU and successfully retrieve the fuel sample. Wikus and Chris fight their way back to District 9. Wikus is captured by the mercenaries and then recaptured by the Nigerians, but escapes. He then protects Chris as he escapes, making his way to the alien ship. In the final battle, a showdown between the lead mercenary and now almost completely alien Wikus, aliens burst out of the surrounding slums and dismembering the mercenary.

After two viewings I remain ambivalent about this film. The film does have a level of political self-awareness; perhaps, I am willing to concede, the film is taking a tongue in cheek approach to the familiar narratives it follows (action film, the civil rights buddy film, video game trailer), perhaps it is nodding to popular demand on the one hand but critiquing it on the other. I still think the film is ultimately about modes of white masculinity, it does not manage to reach much beyond that. But I now feel that it both calls into question and reinstates the white male human.

And as a good film based upon a video game should be, it is about manhood. Besides the talking heads, here is only one recognizably female person in the film, Wikus’ blonde wife, who is his anchor to the hetero-normative world he is forced to leave behind. In fact he is poised to be representative of this world: His wife’s father is head of MNU and the patriarch of the film; Wikus is set up to be the heir to the throne. Wikus must suffer greatly the pains of his transformation, but as he becomes a champion of the aliens, he will redeem White South Africa from the sins of the fathers. The aliens as far as we know are all male, or dual sexed, although Chris is explicitly described as the father to his son. At one point in the beginning of the film, we see aliens emerging from their shacks in women’s undergarments, when evicted by the MNU military. But they do not stand as females, but as signs of cross-dressing deviance, or at best the ignorance of the aliens about civilized customs. This scene as do others are quite reminiscent of the police reality show Cops, not only for the extreme violence of the officials (here mostly black South African) but also for the camera work; the wandering, shaky handicam and the quick, staccato segmentation of the shots.

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Much can be said of this film aesthetically; the world it presents is totally militarized, razor-wired, and surveilled; it uses surveillance camera footage in the body of the film. The film is grimy, filthy, with an acidic color palate; an aesthetic critique of the usually sterile, smooth shininess of action films.

There are three explicit racial/political analogies in the film. The first is between the aliens and the subjects of South African’s apartheid regime. The title is actually a reference to the apartheid regime’s District 6, a black and coloured section of Cape Town from which over 60,000 people were forced out in the 1970’s to make the area all white. The second analogy for the aliens is the recent waves of African immigrants seeking asylum in neighboring African nations from poverty and war torn regions like Zimbabwe. It references the waves of anti-immigrant violence that swept through the poor townships in South Africa last year. This is reflected in the film, with the obvious anti-Alien sentiment amongst the black South Africans that we meet or that are interviewed in the film’s mockumentary. A third racial/political analogy runs alongside these: the history of the Dutch Boers in their struggle against British Imperialism, indeed, the relocation camps provide a direct reference to their forced relocation during the Boer wars. As the story goes the British were the first to employ both the term and the practice of the ‘concentration camp,’ during the second Boer War. With our main protagonist a Dutch Afrikaaner, Wikus van de Merwe, and his two main assistants black South Africans, the film seems to say that the oppressed can become the oppressor, drawing allusion also to Israeli apartheid system in the Palestinian territories. This does another kind of subterranean work:  the Dutch Afrikaaner actually occupies the space of the racialized/colonized other, by evoking the histories of the Dutch Boers fighting Britain’s imperialist conquest.  This is an interesting sleight of hand, making a film ostensibly about racial apartheid not about blackness at all, but about disgruntled whiteness. Perhaps this is an underlying white South African tendency, a grumbling resentment of some sort over a potential nationalist tale.

Still and all, the film levels damning criticisms of multinational corporate greed, war culture, and global capital’s effect on Africa. Once Wikus is infected and grows an alien arm, he becomes priceless to the government, the ‘most valuable piece of hardware in the world.’ The MNU representatives are truly heartless, as they experiment on alien bodies. It gives a darkly humorous critique of the ways segregation is sexualized; when Wikus escapes the MNU’s grasp, they immediately pathologize him with the story that he was running rampant, promiscuously having sex with aliens. The cover of the tabloids runs a photo of him and an alien in a doggy style position. As the aliens all appear to be male, it is not clear here whether this is the enactment of the film’s homoerotic anxiety, as is present in most action films, or if indeed it could be a self-aware moment of critique of homophobia.

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But something bothered me about the thorough way it castigated black South Africans for their anti-immigration/anti-Alien behavior. And the unquestioning way the Nigerians were booked as the savages of the film. This is to cynically ignore that inter-group violence of poverty is bred by scarcity and the forced competition for scant resources. In addition, there is little to no political intelligence on the part of any of the black South Africans, Nigerians or the aliens, except Chris, and he becomes Wikus’ ‘buddy’ in the section of the film reminiscent of The Defiant Ones and all the buddy films that followed, especially Lethal Weapon.

So I am still ambivalent in my assessment of the film. Where were the truth and reconciliation hearings in this? Why didn’t the aliens rebel? “Workers” have been known to organize, after all. I can’t decide whether it has any value as a progressive critique, or if its utility is purely what it is symptomatic of; the film with supposedly good politics that really remains held hostage by all-too familiar liberal narratives. What could have been a clever insightful quirky comment on the mutability of biology (See Caster Semenya) became instead simply another singing affirmation of (white) humanity’s capacity for renewal.

6 Responses to “On Becoming Alien – District 9”

  1. Craig Meadows September 19, 2009 at 12:18 pm #

    Jayna,
    You’ve certainly touched on many of the things that bothered me the most as I watched this film. Wikus taking on the hero role for the oppressed was nauseating, while the depiction of the Nigerians just made me groan. The hetero-masculine aspect was also a tad irritating. I can’t remember some of the questions that I had at the time, but the narrative itself seemed riven with plotholes (perhaps on the cutting room floor) concerning the how’s and why’s of it all–particularly around the material needed to get back tot he aircraft and the passivity of the aliens towards the external society. While I’ve not yet seen it a second time, I do think that the messianiac element is something that I need to figure out. Chris Johnson is an obvious allegorical figure in this regard, as is his killing, and I’d love to get in and figure out the way in which this film updates other sci-fi biblical allegories such as The Day the EArth Stood Still (though I’ve not watched the Keanu remake, maybe something there, but I’m thinking, of course, of the 1950s film).

    Anyhow, many thanks for the good read. The one thing I did think on the way out of the theatre was that this film needed to be engaged with thoughtful discourse. Well, that, my being stunned by the level of violence…

    Cheers,
    Craig

  2. Evan Torner September 24, 2009 at 3:01 am #

    Dear Jayna,

    I very much agree with your assessment that at the center of District 9, which is marketed as an edgy, socially conscious sci-fi action film, is a soft core of affirming traditional values of masculinity and whiteness. Froma a media studies standpoint, I felt as though the film put the moving picture triad of television, film, and video games into direct visual competition with each other, producing a somewhat inchoate hybrid that took away some of the worst aspects of all three.

    The initial TV documentary phase of the film is undercut by the feature film mode with the first shots of Chris in his lab, a jarring moment of viewer omniscience that I felt nullified the affective dimension of the documentary from there on. The documentary forced us to become critical media consumers, and then we’re asked to return to the feature film world uncritically. The assault on the MNU headquarters is “enhanced” with gun camera perspectives a la Doom (2005), so we must then transition to thinking of ourselves as film viewers to the video-game avatar stance, all while the simulation of humans exploding dominates the screen.

    In Hollywood terms, the film is like a mad cross-breed of Men in Black (1997) and Children of Men (2006), complete with the masculinity-enforcing multiculturalism of the former and the gratuitous bloodshed of the latter. But the film I think it remains closest to is still Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste (1987), which speaks volumes to what this film ultimately accomplishes.

    Thanks for the review!

    Best,

    -Evan

  3. Silly me September 28, 2009 at 12:08 am #

    I haven’t seen this movie, but I do have to say that if you are looking for non-humans to support, then True Blood sounds like more fun.

    God hates fangs.🙂

  4. Ben Seeman November 4, 2009 at 10:42 am #

    You may want to watch it a second time and consider that Wikus while being Afrikaans is also a mid level employee caught up in events beyond his control and understanding. I think it was rather brave of the director to portray him betraying Christopher Johnson twice.

    Sure the buddy cop thing is there but also Kafka and Brazil. There are actually alot of simalarities with Brazil mainly a socially connected promotion leads to an easy assignment going snafu and ruining the life of the hapless individual whose friends and family melt away.

    I think it is a narrow view to consider this hetero normative when the significant other could have been any kind of person. The message of love and dedication translates across race and gender.

    I also don’t understand how portraying a criminal gang somehow becomes a racist statement on all Africans. We see plenty of normal Africans. No where in this movie does it imply that all Nigerians are blood thirsty scum. Woye Solinka and Ken Saro-Wiwa are not manning the cat food counter. The criminals are criminals. They are bad guys because of their actions not tier national origin.

    This film is about becoming the other. Watch it again and see what the director and the actors are trying to do. There are alot of subtleties in this film that are not readily apparent.

    Good luck and enjoy.

  5. Johnny February 14, 2010 at 9:59 am #

    Those aliens better not step in our territory or ill blow there heads off!!!!@#$%^&*()_+

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Queer Analysis of District 9 | Sexuality, Race and Space: Queer Literary and Cultural Theory - June 16, 2013

    […] On Becoming Alien – District 9 […]

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