District 9, Dir. Neill Blomkamp
Within five minutes of the opening credits, you pretty much know what’s up. Extra terrestrials, who act as fuzzy stand-ins for black African immigrants, are being oppressed by a fuzzy stand-in for the remnants of white Afrikaner power (now held entirely by corporations rather than the never-seen impotent civil government) in South Africa. What unfolds will be a satire of the legacy of Apartheid, with 10-foot-tall, most-awesome-looking muck creature aliens suffering abuses under the hand of a squirmy, mustachioed bureaucrat named Wikus, who will sooner or later have a moral epiphany.
It’s a South African Alien Nation, using aliens as a vehicle to transfer cultural anxieties about the Other onto the ultimate bugbear. The late 80s TV series, which put oppressed aliens into ripped-from-the-headlines storylines, is referenced by District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, though few remember the show with much fondness. District 9, however, is wildly popular across the U.S. right now, and we should be shocked. Not because it’s a dark and political, smart and funny piece of science fiction, with no stars, lots of subtitles and people with challenging accents, but because its politics are so remarkably over our heads. Sleeper hits come along more often than the film studios would like us to believe, but films that pivot on the story of a craven weakling with an ill-fitting mustache promoted to middle management by nepotism? Can’t remember the last time I saw one of those.
Wikus’s villainous father-in-law—a corporate overlord—appoints Wikus the overseer of the forced migration of aliens from their segregated decaying shantytown to an even worse, even more isolated, tent city. This construct springs directly from the apartheid-era scandal of District 6, wherein over 60,000 black South African’s were removed from their homes in an area that was declared “all white” and pushed into an uninhabitable region outlying Johannesburg. District 9’s shantytown scenes were shot in a shantytown that was wrapping up another forced eviction as Blomkamp arrived with his crew. The history is worth noting, because most of us don’t know it, and the most unexpected pleasure of District 9 is going into a dark air conditioned space on a hot summer day to see lots of shit get blown up (and lots of shit gets blown up good) and being reminded how much we don’t know.
The film challenges American audiences’ sense of exceptionalism. We don’t own xenophobia, racism, or the military industrial complex. District 9 presents a Johannesburg wholly given over to private military contractors. As much as the film makes legendary the crimes of apartheid, Blomkamp depicts the Johannesburg of today with incredible fidelity. It’s hard to watch. In one early scene, Wikus and his assistant, a young black man, sit in an armored car en route to the alien shantytown. The military men gear up, and help Wikus don his bulletproof vest. Wikus tells his increasingly nervous assistant that there aren’t enough vests to go around, but he’ll do fine without one. The implications are both that his life is less valuable than the whites and that as a black man he’s probably prepared to survive a ghetto hellhole, anyway.
In the academic field numbingly named whiteness studies, scholars have spent decades trying to unravel what exactly it means to be white in a white supremacist culture. Being white is a form of unearned power, power that is very hard to recognize until it’s lost. Wikus is shown being alienated, most literally, from white society, and as he gets denied service at a restaurant, has his phone calls to colleagues refused, and takes to hiding out in the slums he tried to dismantle, the inner workings of whiteness are exposed.
To some degree, white privilege got District 9 made. It’s an expansion of Alive in Joburg, a short film Blomkamp directed, wherein he interviewed South Africans about their attitudes towards immigrants from other African countries, and then intercut these interviews with newsreel-type footage of extraterrestrials in Johannesburg. Had someone who wasn’t white helmed the original project, the interviewees (even those who weren’t white themselves) would probably not have been so open about their attitudes, which range from paternal superiority to xenophobia. There is something about a white man standing behind a camera that people have been trained to respect, and respect is in short supply in Johannesburg.
Harnessing the power of Peter Jackson’s workshop of CGI-masters, Blomkamp creates the first sci-fi film in a long time that remembers the lessons of Alien: in space there is no Simichrome. The layers of grit and decay that cover everything alien in District 9 have an almost archeological quality that conceals the prowess of the rendering. You have never seen an alien quite like the ones in District 9 and the spaceship hovering over Johannesburg makes the saucer from Independence Day look like a Frisbee. And within 20 minutes, you’ve forgotten all of that, and become involved in an action-frenzied film.
Half Transformers, half G.I. Joe, and half Iron Man, the action gets stupid. “Is this what you paid to see?” the subtext screams after about the 25th minute of brutal human and alien evisceration, vicious hand-to-machine combat, and flamethrower induced abortions. And for many sitting in the theater with me, the answer was decidedly, “Yes!” That’s fair. The fighting booms, blazes, and crushes skulls; it can make you miss that central to the frenzy is the most troubling part of District 9.
Parallel in the plot with the embodiment of classic white European colonial evil incarnate—a multinational conglomeration that wants to vivisect the aliens and harness their power—is a classic embodiment of black African evil incarnate, a Nigerian warlord who wants to eat the aliens—and their human allies—to steal their mojo. District 9 offers so much insight into the white experience of racial supremacy that I yearn for a way to interpret this vile stereotype as something other than cheap regressive pandering, but nothing comes to mind. Perhaps Blomkamp wanted to show that evil is intrinsic to humanity—black/white, industrialized/primitive —but what comes across is that white bad guys are evil geniuses, and black bad guys are superstitious cannibals. It’s impossible the film got made without someone along the way going “Hey Neill, don’t you think that’s a little racist?” so we have to assume he was acting purposefully as he crafted this caricature. And, we have to give Blomkamp the benefit of the doubt and assume his purpose wasn’t to convince the audience that Nigerians dine on human flesh. So, what the fuck? The villains in District 9 are distilled to James Bond reductive cartoons, and it seems like Blomkamp assumes that any reasonable person would recognize his cannibal depiction as satire. But it’s a miscalculation, and now that the film stands as South Africa’s strongest lobbying force in the U.S., it’s a particularly dangerous one. Africa is still the Dark Continent in so many ways; we don’t know much about it, and we don’t care. Blomkamp has gotten us to pay attention to Africa, at least for an afternoon. District 9 makes the ongoing suffering in Johannesburg so immediate, you can almost taste it. It’s a damn shame I mean that literally.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.