Neill Blomkamp’s story of space aliens abused by Earthlings is about racism without actually involving race—and therein lies the problem. The parallels reflecting atrocities committed against black South Africans by white ones are clear: the aliens, called hateful names (“prawns”) by human bureaucrats are being forced from their shantytown in a multiple-of-three district in Cape Town to a smaller, more out-of-the-way compound. Signs read, “Humans only;” the aliens are constructed as violent for no real reason (they like to blow things up “for fun,” says the human protagonist), while the humans destroy them with impunity.
This is the kind of racism that white people easily recognize, are able to understand because “we don’t do that anymore.” From this distance, white storytellers like B. turn such overt racism into a morality play that reads like something out of the old EC Comics. District 9 isn’t so much about racism as it is about racists—people who do horrible things that are clearly horrible.
Bureaucrat Wikus Van de Merwe (Sharito Copley), who’s trying to serve one of the aliens an eviction notice, notices the man’s young son. He offers the boy a lollipop,who promptly beans him in the head with it. Later, Wirkus calls, “It’s the sweetie-man! Remember me?” Post-apartheid, post-Civil Rights legislation, Wirkus’s privilege looks ridiculous—really; my mom and I both laughed at this scene—especially because he clearly doesn’t notice it.
But as Wirkus is unaware of his white privilege, so Blomkamp is unaware of his. Due to a quirk in the aliens’ DNA, catfood is an addictive substance to them (“Like catnip for cats,” a white MNU agent says, giggling—although it’s more analogous to heroin). Considering the white government’s need to control the aliens, it seems natural that MNU would supply them with drugs, as a means to get the aliens to obey. Instead, Blomkamp chooses a gang of Nigerians for his drug dealers. Called “the Nigerians” by Wirkus and other white MNU agents, they not only trade catfood to the aliens, but kill and eat them to ingest their power. As Nnedi Okorafor points out in My response to District 419…I mean District 9.😉:
“The Nigerians”, that’s how they were described in the film, as if the mere title is enough to explain their savagery and baseness. My sisters and I are Nigerians and as Nigerians, this aspect of the film was AGONY to watch.
The gang’s leader uses a wheelchair; when Wirkus starts transforming into an alien, Obasanjo wants to eat his alien flesh himself. (Nnedi points out that Obasanjo is the name of Nigeria’s former president; its use here is sloppy writing at best.) On the one hand, Obasanjo’s interest is a sign of Wirkus’s specialness, like the interest of the white government who wants to use him as a biological weapon. Yet, the meaning of that interest is different, and because Blomkamp doesn’t recognize that, his allegory breaks down. Yes, in the film’s fictional power hierarchy, Obasanjo is a human and Wirkus is an alien (which has elements of disability and oppressed race). But in the power hierarchy we’re all familiar with, Wirkus is an able-bodied white man while Obasanjo is a black man with a disability. Wirkus has power that Obasanjo does not, and should. And as the only disabled “Nigerian” who is also the most hungry for alien power, the implication is that Obasanjo will do anything—even kill and eat another (mostly) human being—to walk. By having a disabled black man take power by such violent, scary means, Blomkamp is playing into the anxiety of privilege at having to give up some of its space.
And this is why a social justice allegory like District 9 fails. It packages oppression in ways that are palatable to privileged people, in steps removed just enough from actual racism to make white people comfortable. Any insight the film appears to have is only surface sheen, and it steps on the feet of black Africans while trying to make its “anti-racist” point. In an interview with Brad Balfour at the Huffington Post, Blomkamp says:
“The Nigerian thing is there because I wanted to take as many cues from South Africa as I could. I wanted South Africa to be the inspiration. If I try to keep South Africa as true to South Africa as I could, then, unfortunately, a massive part of the crime that happens in Johannesburg is by the Nigerians there. It’s just the way it is. I wanted to have a crime group, and thought the most honest refraction of a crime group would be Nigerians, for one.
“And then secondly, the Muti, the African witch doctor, is also a huge part of Africa and many African countries. So I wanted to incorporate that as well. At the time I was writing the movie, there was all these tribal witch doctor attacks on Albinos, because Albino flesh were worth more than normal humans. That was the analogy to a different group or a different race, [with their] traditional medicine, or traditional Muti–even cannibalism, in some instances. I incorporated aliens into that.”
In other words, Nigerians are criminals in District 9 because…Nigerians are criminals. And they eat (mostly) human flesh because they do.
District 9 is not the first movie to miss its own point by not thinking through it. (One of the most notorious is Ruggero Deodoto’s title=”Wikipedia: Cannibal Holocaust”>Cannibal Holocaust,). It’s not even that I disliked District 9–I really did enjoy it. But it’s hard to fully enjoy a work that means one thing in theory, and another in practice.