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.