second thoughts about District 9

I wanted to come back to this after reading a slew of negative reviews, attacking the film from the Left.

For instance, in the New York Press:

District 9’s South Africa–set story makes trash of that country’s Apartheid history by constructing a ludicrous allegory for segregation that involves human beings (South Africa’s white government, scientific and media authorities plus still-disadvantaged blacks) openly ostracizing extraterrestrials in shanty-town encampments that resemble South Africa’s bantustans.

It’s been 33 years since South Africa’s Soweto riots stirred the world’s disgust with that country’s regime where legal segregation kept blacks “apart” and in “hoods” (thus, Apartheid) unequal to whites. District 9’s sci-fi concept celebrates—yes, that’s the word—Soweto’s legacy by ignoring the issues of self-determination (where a mass demonstration by African students on June 16, 1976, protested their refusal to learn the dominant culture’s Afrikaans language).

District 9 also trivializes the bloody outcome where an estimated 500 students were killed, by ignoring that complex history and enjoying its chaos. Let’s see if the Spielberg bashers put-off by the metaphysics in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will be as offended by District 9’s mangled anthropology. District 9 represents the sloppiest and dopiest pop cinema—the kind that comes from a second-rate film culture. [snip] Wikus’ semi-polite attitude is a reversal of the European imperialism that started South African colonization. But the allegory is also misapplied because the prawn, who resent their mistreatment, primarily yearn to beamup back to their Mothership. Blomkamp and Jackson want it every which way:The actuality-video threat of The Blair Witch Project,unstoppable violence like plus Spielberg’s otherworldly benevolence: factitiousness, killing and cosmic agape.This is how cinema gets turned into trash. Blomkamp and Jackson’s outrageously stupid idea boasts comicbook logic—Wikus gets infected alien fluid and starts to metamorphose into a Prawn Like Me monstrosity. But this cheap, darkhumored pass at empathy disgraces any greater cinematic potential.

Then there’s this:

The distasteful joke here being perpetrated by director Neill Blomkamp, is that he fooled his subjects into talking about their aversion to the swelling immigrant population from other African countries, particularly Nigeria, and then, so to speak, photo-shopped them into his politically odious victims-as-villains movie. Clever.

At the same time, the Nigerians are depicted as despicable when not depraved bottom feeder hustlers and homicidal gangs financially exploiting the aliens, when not forcing the females into cross-species sex for sale. This, while the white dominated government is simply perplexed.

I think there’s a validity to some of these points. But they need to be put in context. Left-wing writers and filmmakers face tremendous difficulties at the moment, not least of which is the absence of mass  progressive movements that would give their work context. District 9 invites allegorical readings, which in current circumstances necessarily become problematic. That is, if you map the encounter between aliens and humans onto contemporary race relations (which the film invites you to do) than the pressures for narrative closure do point to quite reactionary readings. That is, the SF thriller genre requires some kind of dramatic resolution of the individual problems faced by the characters, and the escape to the mother ship provides an obvious solution. But of course, as the critics suggest, in the context of an allegory about South African race relations, well, where does that leave you? Sending minorities back to mythological homelands was always the Afrikaner dream.

Nonetheless, I don’t think that’s all that can be said about the film.Certainly, it’s also managed to annoy conservative critics. In Salon, for instance, the reviewer attacked it as unfairly anti-corporate (an oxymoron if ever there one).

More than that, though, the critiques miss the contradictions of the film. After all, in 2009 a movie about high-tech policing operations in sprawling slums will invoke Iraq and Afghanistan as much as South Africa, which is why the earlier sections of the film, in which the MNU bureaucrats discuss their attitudes to the aliens, are much more powerful than the second half.

Politically, the film is incoherent. But that’s almost inevitable under current conditions. And it’s the contradictions that are interesting.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. I agree with you about the film being in context. I thought it had some interesting points and in some sense, Wikus trying to evict people had the feel of Palestine too. The kind of pretending to be nice parts before turning nasty and threatening to take his child.

    The absense of women in the film is also important to note, though it's be no means abnormal for the genre.

  2. Part of the plot sounds, well familiar. An alien slave ship crashes in the desert. That's Alien Nation, a movie and (later) TV show from about 20 years ago. But this has a huge twist from Alien Nation. The Newcomers are not assimilated, they are kept in slavery. They look less human. Great idea.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *