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Monday, August 24, 2009

The Racism Behind District 9 [Movie Monday]

I had heard the bad things about
District 9. I had heard that it was racist, but didn't go too much into these blog posts because I didn't want to see the spoilers because I was still interested in it. Then I read the Time magazine review of the movie that hailed it for it's innovation and social commentary on apartheid. I was confused as to why these progressive bloggers would call the movie racist and Time magazine could have such a great review because of the social commentary that the purposeful racism provides. So I had to figure this out for myself (of course, if I had read the spoilers in those blog posts, I would understand why they called it racist, but I didn't want to ruin the movie).

The movie was shot and edited in a really interesting way. It was a combination of a documentary with interviews about the incidents and actually seeing these incidents. It had great special effects - the aliens, explosions, gun fights, and all. The story line is actually fairly interesting.

*Spoiler Alert!*

District 9 is a story about aliens that have become stranded on Earth in Johannesburg, South Africa. They have been sectioned off to District 9 - a slum full of crime, violence, and prostitution - and the aliens are referred to as prawns. They are referred to as prawns because of both their appearance and the view that they are "bottom-feeders."

District 9 is a very clear (and pretty intentional) analogy for apartheid in South Africa, especially seeing as how it takes place in South Africa. So if the aliens are supposed to be the black South Africans, the black South Africans are not painted in that good of a light. The aliens are mean, violent, dumb, have very little social order, and are just generally pictured as evil. This is not an accurate picture of the life in the slums of South Africa during apartheid.

The writer and director, Neill Blomkamp, is a South Africa native who is now 29, but left South Africa when he was 18. In the
Time magazine review of District 9, Blomkamp had this to say about the political commentary of the movie:

He became aware "that all these very serious topics about racism and xenophobia and segregation would start to shine through the science-fiction-esque veneer. I had to be very careful that i didn't get too close to these serious topics with a film that's mostly a summer thrill ride."
He should have taken these "serious topics" more seriously. While the end of the movie does become a science-fiction "thrill ride," the beginning of it is very much serious and very much about apartheid. He should have thought more about the portrayal of the aliens.

So while there is definitely supposed to be racism in the movie between humans and the aliens, the movie is more racist that it intends to be by portraying the aliens in such a bad light when they are supposed to be an analogy for black South Africans.

Christopher is the only alien that is really painted in a good light. He just wants to get home and protect his son. He's more intelligent than the other aliens. We are supposed to side with him and feel empathetic towards his decisions. But he is the one exception!

Then we get to the portrayal of the black humans in the movie. All of the main people in the movie are white and part of a private military company. The main black people in the movie were the Nigerians living in District 9. The Nigerians were major antagonists in the movie. They were cruel, thieves, and obsessed with alien technology. They even eat pieces of aliens in the thought that it will give them alien powers. Not a very friendly portrayal.

And then there is the representation of being mixed-raced. The protagonist, Wikus, becomes infected with alien technology and starts to morph into an alien. He is treated as sub-human - medical testing is done on him, he is valued solely for his ability to operate alien technology - and as soon as he escapes, he is targeted, hunted. He's not human and not an alien.

The movie would have been better on many levels if the aliens were portrayed as more sophisticated, less violent, etc. Not only would it be less racist (not completely erasing the racism), but it would also make the story more complex and increase the internal struggles of the human characters.

District 9 was hard for me to place. It was blatantly racist (and not in its representation of apartheid). How can I take a movie seriously if it aims to provide social commentary on apartheid but then is racist itself? But the movie was beautifully made and unique. Since I'm writing this right after I saw it, I am still kind of shocked. It was gruesome and gory on top of the racism. I don't know what to tell you about a recommendation. If you can handle the blatant racism (and the gore), it might be worth it to see because of its uniqueness. But I don't want to support something that is so racist. So I will let you make the decision for yourself after I have given you my opinion about the movie.


lazerbug said...

Another element of the movie that adds to the complexity and makes it harder to "place" as you say (at least for me) is that many of the interviews in the first half of the movie are real interviews. Blomkamp asked black South Africans about black Nigerians and Zimbabweans and filmed their answers.

You're absolutely right about the blatant racism in the movie, and I agree that it's difficult to come to a conclusion about this movie because it both critiques and commits racism. I don't know if that's a postmodern, self-aware move or a move of ignorance (I'm leaning toward the latter -- white privilege is amazingly easy to overlook).

Linda said...

Personally, as a film student who has been taught to analyze every film element, I believe the blatant racism was not mistakingly left within the film. In fact, it can be seen as a post-modern approach (as you hypothesized) to racism. The fact that the interviews from his short film were real interviews goes above and beyond to show the political consciousness. It is hard to really separate the message from the however-many-millions of dollars that were spent on this film--but I think it is there.

Then again, this is just my opinion. =] But I do see where the lines are blurred.

Laura said...

Wow. I did not know that those were real interviews. That's pretty interesting.

I don't know if it's just me, but I have a hard time accepting the post-modern argument. I think that a certain level of racism was left in the movie in order to show the political consciousness. But how the aliens did not have to be portrayed the way that they were to get this across. The portrayal of the aliens as violent, sub-human (yes, I know, they are aliens), and unsophisticated speaks to the view that many people have of black South Africans and blacks in the U.S. and around the world. I think it says a lot that this movie was made by a white South African.

Justice said...

I love reading io9, and I found a few of their posts about District 9 interesting. I thought you might as well.

Happy blogging! :)

Laura said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laura said...

First let me say that South Africa is a really messed up country. The president has four wives, eighteen children, and believes showering after intercourse can prevent AIDS--just to name a few things.
I think that Blomkamp depicts all human races as racist. Black, white, coloured. The MNU corp is mixed, in about the same way many SA companies are. And the white South Africans were blatantly racist and capitalist as they performed medical procedures on the aliens for their own exploitative purposes. And in the end, wasn't it a black South African man who did the right thing by exposing the MNU's experiments. I really think Blomkamp pulls no punches and shows all human races to be both good and bad (but mostly bad). I don't think Blomkamp is directly placing the aliens in the black South Africans shoes in every way, but trying to make a point that during apartheid--and even now--there was a massive breakdown in dialogue, people made assumptions and instead pointed fingers and were reactionaries.
Also, if you were a South African and had to compete with the over 5 million illegal immigrants (many from Zim, Moçambique and other SADC nations) taking what few job there are away from you, you might be a bit xenophobic and angry too, hence the riots that are a constant in the rainbow nation. As far as the Nigerians are concerned: all I'll say is that I don't think its entirely feasible for a multi-ethnic group of criminals to come together and work within the alien population.
Blomkamp should be praised for his efforts in depicting the problems and tensions boiling under the surface of this nation and for bringing it onto the international stage via film, since clearly most people outside of Africa care and know little about post-apartheid South African politics.

Laura said...

I am not entirely educated in what is going on in post-apartheid South Africa. I have talked with some friends who have studied abroad there and read some news stories, but that's about it. But that doesn't mean that just because I don't understand the specific political climate, that I can't have an opinion about the racism in the movie.

I do think that Blomkamp did do a good job at showing the racism and xenophobia that exists in South Africa. My problem lies with the portrayal of the aliens. Coming from a white person's perspective (and yes, I know that I am implicit in this as well), the movie is showing the aliens (the metaphor for black South Africans in apartheid) as unsophisticated, violent, stupid, etc. All of the things that white South Africans think that black South Africans are, even today after apartheid is technically over. If the aliens were portrayed as being more sophisticated beings, I think it would have added more to the storyline of the movie and would be be a more accurate portrayal of black South Africans. Not to mention that equating aliens with black South Africans is racist in and of itself.

Laura said...

Well, hence my point completely. Blomkamp is bringing to the forefront the atrocities of SA apartheid policy and the way the relocations of blacks to bantustans resulted in their marginalization. The relocation of over 60000 people from Cape Town's District 6 to the "Flats" is the basis of District 9. Blomkamp shows the aliens were clearly technologically more advanced and sophisticated, but they were refugees and when forced to live substandard, overcrowded living spaces, their society deteriorates. That's NOT racism, that's what happens with any group under said conditions and shows that when we force these conditions upon a group, that group becomes a victim and only furthers the problem. The Jews, Palestinians, Afghans, indigenous Americans... it's NOT racism. It's about how when conditions deteriorate, people revert in order to survive no matter what their ethnicity is. When we force people to live in bad conditions, you're not going to go there and find people sipping tea and sharing goods with a smile, are you?

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