District 9

Watching District 9, I could feel my mind splitting into different tracks of internal dialogue and reaction.

The first track was simply taking pleasure in the film’s deft mixture of intelligence and high-octane action in a science-fiction idiom. Even potentially trite plot hooks come off as as having a bit of satisfying ambiguity, such as whether the protagonist’s seeming moral awakening is merely a mixture of self-interest and despair.

The second internal dialogue I was having as I watched involved the film’s South African setting, which was awesomely (if unsurprisingly) spot-on. I frankly felt like I’d somehow met the faux-academic commenters who pop up in the documentary-style segments of the movie. I couldn’t really think of another film with some degree of mainstream commercial success in the U.S. market that was set in an authentically imagined South Africa.

The third internal dialogue I had took off from the film’s setting. Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the film. Basically, I can’t wait to teach this film in several of my classes. Obviously, it makes for an interesting retrospective commentary on apartheid, something that a lot of middlebrow American film critics have picked up on. Even more, however, I was thinking that it’s a fantastic film to show in a course that deals with cosmopolitan identity, hybridity, and creolization in colonial and postcolonial societies. Or, similarly, to frame a discussion of the situation of early modern contacts between European and non-European societies. There’s some scattered comparative scholarship on castaways, shipwreck survivors, scouts, ambassadors, outpost guards, lone traders and similar types who litter the early modern landscape, but I keep thinking that we haven’t paid enough attention overall to this motley assemblage of people in really fascinating circumstances.

I was just reading again about Portuguese explorations of the coast of Africa, leading up to Dias’ and da Gama’s expeditions, and how on a number of these voyages, they dropped off either Africans that they had captured or acquired at other stops on the journey or Portuguese men to establish outposts, make contact with the locals, and learn languages. Thinking about the circumstances of those people raises some really profound questions about cross-cultural relationships in general, but also sharp questions about how we tend to view European expansion. In quite a few cases, people dropped off or abandoned in this way disappear from historical view, or are known to have died from disease or violence. But in many other cases, they learned local languages, became a respected part of local societies, married and had families, while still quite evidently longing to return home from exile. I kept thinking that District 9 was a really fantastic, evocative compression of a lot of those kinds of experiences, a really good way to think about contact, transformation, exclusion. I kept making little “double features” in my mind: District 9 and Aguirre, the Wrath of God; District 9 and Tarzan, and so on.

What’s really nice is that District 9 isn’t just a conventional “going native” narrative dressed up with laser beams and cute aliens, because Wikus van der Merwe is not living out the typical fantasy of liminal mastery that most modern narratives of this kind offer (Tarzan, Dances With Wolves), where the Westerner turns out to be a better Other than the Others. Sure, Wikus ends up at the center of events, playing an important role in determining the fate of the prawns, but largely by accident. When the dust settles, Wikus is just an alien still mourning the life he’s lost, most of the other aliens are in concentration camps, and the critical actor with the meaningful decisions ahead is on board a spaceship heading who-knows-where. Wikus is really much more like those early modern men shoved overboard and marooned by ship captains and kings (and like them, is briefly valued not for who he is as a human being, but for his instrumental usefulness to the powerful).


The last track in my mind as I watched the film was a kind of dread at the inevitable appearance of complaints from the sort of Africanist scholars who typically raise a great hue and cry about any film or TV program that doesn’t represent Africa and Africans in sanctified terms (or similarly fails to envision colonizers and colonialism in purely demonic fashion). I tried reasoning with this cognitive module: surely, said my inner voice, this film is so richly imagined (not to mention entertaining) that the usual aggrieved griping about representations of Africa will be muted or non-existent. Surely, said my other inner voice, the more cynically experienced one, such quasi-nationalist monitors of representation do not abandon their guardposts nor relax their watch for negative imagery. My more sympathetic voice replied, “Hey, don’t forget, buddy, you used to rattle off complaints about negative images and so on yourself with appalling casualness”. The cynic coughed and mumbled something about salad days, etcetera.

In the end, both voices have been right: I’ve seen some really positive reactions to the film from Africanists I know, but also some typically disproportionate condemnations, particularly of a relatively minor part of the film, the Nigerian gangsters.

I’m not really sure what a properly sensitive respectful pop-culture representation of muti murders or violent criminality in South Africa (which are real, if also sensationally reported and imagined by a variety of observers) might look like. I know, I know. The criminal warlord could be a more rounded individual. There could be less of his fetishizing lip-smacking desire to consume Wikus’ arm. The Nigerians’ “witch-doctor” could be less of a freakishly envisioned trope. Or better perhaps to excise the “Nigerian” part of the film altogether? Perhaps better that the film not be set in South Africa at all, because having aliens and Africans in the same representational frame is just dangerous to begin with. Maybe in fact better it not be made in the first place: science fiction as a genre is so deeply implicated in the colonial imaginary. If you’re going to worry about the Nigerian warlord being a stereotype, why not worry equally about Wikus’ father and his associates being a stereotype of a brutal apartheid-era bureaucrat? Or Kobus Venter being a stereotypical villainous soldier? Ah, because those stereotypes have a “good” politics to them?

It’s not that we shouldn’t talk about these questions in relationship to this film. Blomkamp’s representation of the Nigerians certainly does invoke a very specifically South African kind of xenophobia in some problematic ways.

However, the film is doing some fairly complicated work with the way that racial Others have been imagined in general: the prawns do appear to be disgusting to human sensibilities. But to simply get outraged, as some already have, that Blomkamp seems to be reproducing the idea that the racial Other is disgusting is to miss the hermeneutical forest for a few trees. Would you be able, if confronted with something undeniably alien, to see through that to some sense of a commonality and equality, to understand and appreciate and embrace the alien? That’s the situation that early modern humanity was in: not just Europeans looking at non-Europeans, but non-Europeans looking at Europeans as well. There were “Occidentalisms” as well as “Orientalisms”. The difference from the standpoint of the 21st Century is that the way that Europeans imagined other societies became vastly more socially and politically powerful than other such imaginings within the global system that coalesced between 1650 and 1950. That’s a very important history, and one that continues to confront 21st Century global society, but if we forget that the encounter with difference has always challenged local understandings of the definition and nature of the human being, we lose the ability to think in better ways about difference in the future.

The people who see District 9 and think, “Blomkamp is just reproducing the idea that racial Others are disgusting” are revealing themselves to be the real problem, revealing themselves as the reproducers of a racialized and racializing script. They say: The prawns crave cat food! They eat pig heads! They’re dirty! They look weird! They act violently! They urinate where they shouldn’t and they smell bad! The point should not be that human beings have never legitimately appeared exotic to one another in the history of cultural contact (post-European expansion and otherwise). Read ibn Battuta’s accounts of his journeys and you’ll see him offering distortions and exoticizations galore, generally based on surface impressions and gut reactions.

Blomkamp is using a speculative frame to ask whether liberal modernity is in any way more capable of looking past those kinds of filters at the underlying reality of a shared humanity. The film offers plenty of evidence that there is far more to the prawns than what human observers “see”. Even the sympathetically tweedy academic commentators in the documentary portions of the film suggest that the prawns are aimless, without purpose or guidance, having lost their commanding castes before being shipwrecked on Earth. By the end of the film, we learn that’s certainly not the case, that Christopher, his son and his friend, presumably with the collaboration of other prawns, have been working carefully to escape from Earth all along. But even early on, there’s a lot of evidence of the prawns’ “humanity” for anyone who cares to notice: they don’t want to leave their shacks, they strategize about how to evade or frustrate the authorities, they have their own desires and ways of being in the world, they all speak a fully realized language. None of them are really drones or animals. The critics who look at the film’s depiction of the prawns and see nothing but a representation of racial Others as animals completely miss the point, in the process almost absurdly proving Blomkamp’s suggestion that if 21st Century liberal consciousness were once again confronted with a new or novel experience of difference (as opposed to fighting against some historically-derived system of discrimination and oppression based on racial or sexual difference that liberalism knows that it’s supposed to try and combat) it would fail at the test.

The basic problem with this entire line of criticism in film and media studies is the theoretical and empirical simple-mindedness of how it sees the reproduction of culture. A trope is treated like a virus: if it’s visible or identifiable, it’s a contagion, and the only legitimate response is a quarantine. That leaves only representations so safely comforting and purified for a grade-school kind of nationalist or identarian sensibility that they might as well come with a “Sanitized For Your Protection” wrapper on them. The bloody-minded literalness of this approach to cultural criticism is equally exasperating: a trope is considered to come with all its possible negative meanings fully encoded inside, doing exactly the work of remaking audiences and their consciousness that it was meant to do.

That’s not the way culture works, nor the way that audiences work with culture. District 9 is the kind of film that’s good to think, not the kind of film that the representational posse should be chasing with torches and pitchforks.

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13 Responses to District 9

  1. Bill McNeill says:

    I haven’t come across any facile “that’s racist!” responses to “District 9”. My sense is that it immunized itself by, whatever else it is, being a pretty clear condemnation of Apartheid. But I can see how things might be different in your line of work. Has any of the hue and cry you fear made it into print?

    The stereotypical depiction of the Nigerian gangsters did jump out at me, but the context complicated matters. The Nigerians were drawn with a broad brush of Scary Black Savage tropes (the witch doctor woman in particular) which in another context would have seemed deeply racialized. Except here the picture is complicated by the constant depiction of South African blacks as being cut from the same cloth as the whites: they have the same anti-Prawn prejudices, work in the same bureaucracies, and serve in the same military outfits. As far as the aliens are concerned, South African blacks might as well be Afrikaners. There’s no hint of mystical racial ju-ju about them, and the ones who are scary are that way because they’re dressed in body armor and carrying white rifles. (For my money the best minor character is the black South African solider who accompanies Wikus on the initial incursion into the alien shantytown because he’s a clearly decent and thoughtful guy who nevertheless willingly takes part in brutal injustice.) So the same set of tropes that in an American movie would signal “Danger: Black People!” here signal “Danger: Foreigners!” This seems odd to Americans, but to Africans it may mean nothing more than the fact that they don’t see themselves as all living in one big country.

    (Of course these witch doctor tropes would never show up in an American movie in this day and age, though a similar set rejiggered to have positive connotations might be used to signal “Hooray: Black People!”)

    Granted I’m primed to pick up on the whole racial-Other vs. other-kind-of-Other distinction because I have a hobby horse about reducing the entire continent of Africa to “that place the black people come from”, but in this instance it seems like I’m not fishing. I’m unclear whether Blomkamp was engaging in deliberate provocation with his depiction of the Nigerians, or was simply reaching for a typically South African set of baddies, but I’m with you in being pleased “District 9” doesn’t have all its stereotyping rough edges shaved off, because then we wouldn’t be able to consider this.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, exactly, the rough edges are precisely what makes it provocatively “good to think”: are the Nigerians that way to tweak South Africans about their xenophobia? To show how hard it is to get away from the scary Other as trope? Because some Others are in fact scary in Blomkamp’s view? A film that had a safe identity-politics schematic mapped out on these questions would be like a tire with all the air let out of it.

    I’m mostly seeing the negative comments from scholars on a listserv discussion, but there’s a handful of blogs out there as well that have been condemning the film as racist.

  3. jfruh says:

    Just got back from finally seeing this and was glad to see your commentary! For me, one of the most interesting bits with the Nigerian gangs was the moment when they were getting ready to cut off Wikus’ arm. It was a tense and terrifying moment — and was of course essentially the same thing that the (mostly white, wholly “civilzied”) scientists tried to do to him less than an hour earlier in the film. At least the Nigerians were talking to Wikus, instead of ignoring the fact that he was conscious and aware of what was happening.

    One interviewer actually asked Blomkamp about the racial overtones of the Nigerian characters, and he remarked rather matter-of-factly that many South African slums are in fact dominated by Nigerian gangs as District 9 is in the film.

    I was a little disappointed with the narrative “solution” — that Christopher had the power to reactivate the ship all along, if only he had found enough magic ship-powering/human DNA-mutating goo sooner. Another interview with Blomkamp got into some material that didn’t get into the film, but was his proposed answer to why Christopher seemed so much smarter than the other prawn; he said that in his conception, the prawn here a somewhat hive-like species that had been left rudderless without a leadership caste, but that a sort of species-wide collective unconsciousness would “elect” one of their number to assume leadership responsibilities if they lost their leader, and that Christopher had slowly been growing more clever over the course of the decades they had been living in District 9 and more capable of rebuilding the command pod.

    Another fun fact in the interview is that, almost unbelievably, the scenes in the prawn slum were filmed in a real Jo’burg slum where people were in the process of being evicted from their shacks by the government in a nebulous “resettlement” scheme.

    Finally: at one point, one of the MNU mercenaries growls “one prawn, one bullet” menacingly. Wasn’t “one X, one bullet” (with a value of X that I can’t remember) a slogan of one of the various contending sides in South Africa during apartheid?

  4. aaron says:

    I haven’t yet seen District Nine (though I may use it next semester if I teach this class again). But I’m curious about the sort of rhetoric I’ve heard about it (and from the filmmaker) emphasizing it as *both* an allegory for Apartheid and for South African nativist violence in a broad sense. Now, picking on things a filmmaker says about their films is always good sport because filmmakers tend to be such bad critics, but stuff like this makes alarm bells go off:

    ??the plight of the film??s crustaceanlike extraterrestrials can be easily read as a metaphor for the persecution of South African blacks under apartheid. But Mr. Blomkamp said he was also trying to comment on how the country??s impoverished peoples oppress one another. While ??District 9?? was being filmed in the Chiawelo section of Soweto, Alexandra and other townships were ravaged by outbursts of xenophobic violence perpetrated by indigenous South Africans upon illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe, Malawi and elsewhere.??

    Not only are these very different stories, but something funny happens when they get elided into one another. After all, if it’s an allegory for Apartheid, then it’s a very strange one, since instead of a white minority showing up in ships and occupying land which a black majority had been living on, you have a story in which the oppressed minority are the people showing up in ships, and instead of wanting their land back, citizen rights, etc, all they want to do is leave. And I wonder whether emphasizing the plight of diasporic populations in the Joburg context is a way of portraying black South African as the *real* racists.

    I may just be speculating irresponsibly, of course; I haven’t seen the movie (watched Inglourious Basterds instead), but then it’s not so much the movie as this apparently popular reading of the movie that seems to show up in so many reviews, that all racisms are one, such that you can have an allegory for both Apartheid racism and Nativist racism without observing the difference. If the container is so large as to contain both, then it’s not really doing much work for us, is it? Anyway, your endorsement makes me look forward to seeing the actual movie itself.

  5. Bill McNeill says:

    There are plenty of disappointing narrative flaws beyond the ones jfruh mentions. Why is the head of the relocation operation on the ground serving summonses with the rest of the grunts? Why did the MNU higher-ups start brutalizing Wikus as soon as they saw his arm when he had already demonstrated that he was a compliant flunky who would follow orders? How did Wikus remember the route back into the basement lab? For that matter, the whole business with the metal tube full of black goo was the hoariest of MacGuffins, and I agree with a recent Slate review’s contention that the science fiction convention of mustache-twirlingly evil corporations with statelike powers is getting a bit tired. But lots of action movies have flaws, and these are generally forgivable as long as they don’t give you time to think. Plus, for every narrative gap in “District 9” there was a brilliant bit of visual detail. Sure the Nigerian witch doctor stuff was too much, but the throwaway shot of the gangsters betting on a cockfight between alien scorpions was spot on. And all kinds of creepy resonances came out of equipping the MNU paramilitaries with white rifles, like they were some kind of high school color guard.

    I never heard of “one X, one bullet”, but that would be a natural rejoinder to “one man, one vote”.

  6. jfruh says:

    @aaron — the plight of the aliens of the film certainly maps much more closely onto the situation with contemporary Zimbabwean immigrants than onto apartheid-era situations, though the latter is more familiar to people outside of South Africa; it’s also worth noting that Blomkamp says that the germ of the idea for the story came from the expulsion of blacks form District Six in Capetown in the ’60s. As to what of interest could be gleaned from putting these into the same container, well, maybe it’s that the mechanics of oppression can look very similiar in situations with widely different historical backstory?

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Or that the mechanisms of one system for managing oppression can map onto the next? I thought that was a very clear implication of the film: that the world basically said, “Well, as long as these aliens are in Jo’burg anyway, you guys sort of know how to handle this situation in your own particular way, right? It’s not like we can move them all somewhere else anyway.” Part of the implication being that if the ship had arrived over Santiago or Jerusalem or Beijing, the resolution of the prawn’s situation would have been materially and culturally different if in the end having some of the same core character.

  8. Doug says:

    “One settler, one bullet” is the slogan in question.

  9. James says:

    This is why strictly allegorical readings of genre films don’t hold up the majority of the time. Rarely can a genre film maintain a coherent allegory as a whole. Why? Well, for one, there are simply too many inputs into a film that effect the output: multiple screenwriters and drafts, input of various key persons such as producers, editors or actors, the dictates of various genre conventions, film narrative conventions, dramatic needs, character needs, scenes rewritten for general clarity, scenes trimmed or excised for length or budget issues, the whims of test audiences, etc, etc. The list is extensive.

    Even if the creator’s original intention for a film was as some sort of coherent socio-political allegory (which I actually don’t think is often the case), the end result is almost necessarily skewed simply by the nature of the filmmaking process. Just read an academic or critical text that makes a case for a genre film as allegory and 9 out of 10 times you will see one or both of the following: a) the critic needs to jump through some pretty narrow hoops to massage the film to fit the desired allegory (selective cherry-picking of scenes, omitting what doesn’t fit, etc), or b) the critic comes to the rather vacuous conclusion (and these days the standard par the course academic “reading”) that the film is ultimately “contradictory”… as if that is in itself some monumental and radical insight.

    Moreover, I just don’t think that many genre films–even ones attentive to or inspired by socio-political realities–are typically meant to be or really can be read allegorically in any meaningful way. Social and cultural factors certainly become embedded in genre fictions, but often in a more piece-meal or even ad hoc fashion. This is not to say that District 9 or other genre films don’t have something to say about “otherness” or apartheid or whatever. But it is to say that if we try to simply map some social or political reality or theory onto the film without considering the inputs of other factors (genre conventions, dramatic needs, industrial realities, etc), I think we are ultimately doing the films, the filmmakers, and even the audiences a disservice.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes. Expressive culture, both good and not-so-good, can remind of or invoke all sorts of other expressive culture, as well as historical experience, but that’s like saying that a strong smell can give you an overwhelming sensual experience of a memory. The smell is whatever it is, it’s not the memory, and you may not have that experience in the same way the next time you smell it. District 9 makes me think of all sorts of things, but most of those are things I think about already. What makes a genre film (or any other) good to think is that it’s a tasty stew of images, allusions, accidents: what comes of consuming it is pretty varied.

    In general, people who want a work of culture to be a fixed and intentionally deliberate allegory to some other singular experience or text strike me as tedious literalists (just as much as people who insist that a given image can have only one highly negative and intentional meaning).

  11. aaron says:

    I really need to just go see the movie, I think. But the “can look very similar in situations with widely different historical backstory” is exactly what seems worrying to me in thinking about how the all this uber-South African stuff gets understood and interpreted in a place like the US, where the specifics of Apartheid (the way it is not a nativism, per se, but a dominance of the majority by the minority) are so poorly understood. I wonder how many people see it Tim’s way, in other words, and how many people simply overlook the interesting dissonance between which forms the substance of that reading. I suspect the latter is more numerous, though of course, blaming filmmakers for how their movies are seen is sort of cheating.

  12. aaron says:

    Oops, wrote that before the last round of replies. But reading James and Tim’s exchange maybe clarifies for me what I was trying to say: it isn’t so much the movie I’m irritated by (and can’t be, since I haven’t seen it) as the movie-as-allegory (of the simplistic sort) narrative that a lot of journalists (and Blomkamp himself) have sometimes resorted to.

    At the same time, though, there’s a risk in saying that a genre film is just a “stew” of images, because that underplays the power a director has in shaping how the images are received, how those tastes can be arranged into a narrative. His power may not be complete, but neither is it nonexistent: after all, just because an image doesn’t simply have one single intentional meaning, doesn’t mean it has an unlimited set of possible meanings. There’s a balance to be struck between the “means only one thing” side and the “means anything” side, as you know, and while people on the former side might be tedious literalists, people on the latter are tedious relativists.

    In that sense, let me suggest a different culinary metaphor to your “stew of images”: while the work of “eating” a genre film often involves chewing up and digesting the food (in effect, reducing it to a stew), the work done by the director is exactly the reverse process, like that a chef who carefully selects, orders, and arranges a set of images, attempting to regulate and control how those images and sensations are rendered into a coherent narrative. Readers might re-articulate and re-imagine the narratives they are given (chew and mix the meal into digestable food), but directors and writers also have some measure of control over how their audience will be able to do that. In other words, since neither side has complete control over the other, it is the interaction between which is the interesting thing (how the reader is bound by what the director does, and how the director’s narratives can be re-mixed and subverted by the audience).

  13. sarabeth says:

    Late here, but I’d just like to say that one of the things that annoyed me about the Nigerians (in a film that I otherwise loved) was the fact that there was no need to slap on the exoticized overacting. Plotwise, it all worked fine, and given the weird science going on in the main storyline, there’s nothing comparatively that weird about believing that eating someone will make you like them in some way. It would have worked really well if the Nigerians were just standard-issue criminals whose actions were predicated on that belief.

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