What if an alien spaceship landed over Johannesburg, and instead of conquering the planet the stranded visitors ended up victims of a new, inter-planetarian Apartheid?
One of the most sensational and original films of 2009, South African science fiction mockumentary DISTRICT 9, avoids all the genre clichés and delivers an insightful, disturbing and subversive reflection on the nature of racism and repression in the post-colonial world.
Directed by South African born Neill Blomkamp, at his first feature attempt, and produced by Peter Jackson, the film surprisingly attracted considerable audience and critical attention becoming an immediate box office hit in several countries and soon earning a place amongst the classics of the genre. Nobody expected that a relatively small South African film so rooted in its localness, with the variety of different accents and the endless local cultural references would have had such an impact on international audiences.
However, the brilliance of D-9 and arguably what determined its success, is that it can be read on multiple levels: on one level it’s an exciting and entertaining action drama delivered with a unique fusion of docu-realist footage (CCTV, News, interviews) and traditional dramatic sequences enhanced by impressive CGI scenes. On another level, it is an alarming social critique on the human treatment of those mainstream society deems “different”, in this case echoing the oppressive politics of the Apartheid regime.
The story is in fact a clear reference to Cape Town’s District 6, a coloured residential area that in 1966 was declared a “whites only” area under the notorious Group Areas Act causing over 60,000 people to be forcibly removed from their homes.
This is a subject director Neill Blomkamp, as a South African brought up during Apartheid, could not ignore. In an interview he said that the memories of those dark times became the most powerful influence in shaping his creative vision: “It all had a huge impact on me: the white government and the paramilitary police — the oppressive, iron-fisted military environment”.
The idea for District 9 actually came from Alive in Joburg, a 2005 short film where Blomkamp interviewed real people about the influx of Nigerian and Zimbabwean immigrants into contemporary Johannesburg; the real-life xenophobic reactions toward illegal aliens were then edited into a documentary-style commentary on extraterrestrials unwanted by a fearful local population. This social satire on interracial relationships and integration formed the starting point for Blomkamp’s debut feature.
Instead of a hostile species, the aliens in D-9 are harmless creatures who are forced to make an emergency landing over the city of Johannesburg in the 1980’s. The “Prawns”, as the humans offensively refer to them, are malnourished and leaderless, so the South African government places them in a ghetto denominated District 9. Some 20 years later when the movie begins, the aliens are still confined into their impoverished shanty town which is run by Nigerian gangsters who exploit them by charging them exorbitant prices for black-market goods (including the canned cat food the aliens regard as a gourmet treat). Racism and prejudice against the aliens escalates when a wave of violent prawn unrest causes trouble within the city, prompting an immediate forced relocation led by the evil Corporation MNU. In charge of the operation is Wikus Van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a selfish, mediocre and geeky MNU bureaucrat who carries out his job with condescending superiority and a sort of sadistic amusement. Wikus’ ridiculous attempt to get the angry, uncomprehending aliens to sign the consent forms prior to their removal, is of course a satirical reminder of the hypocrisy shown by Apartheid agents who, while employing extremely oppressive measures against black South Africans, still preserved a curious obsession with the formality of due process and the rule of law.
Wikus’ world is turned upside down, when he haphazardly handles an article of alien craft accidentally spraying himself with an unknown alien liquid. The substance causes him to slowly mutate into one of them. As a hybrid creature he suddenly becomes an invaluable resource for MNU scientific experiments aimed at discovering how to manipulate the powerful weaponry the aliens brought with them. Wikus is imprisoned in the MNU labs but manages to escape, becoming the most wanted man in the world. His only chance is to hide in the very community he was supposed to be uprooting. In the midst of a painful metamorphosis, our clumsy anti-hero finds himself forming an alliance with a scientist “prawn” who may have found a way to reactivate the mothership and who turns out to be the most humane and compassionate character in the movie.
Ironically, when Wikus is contaminated, he experiences on his skin the effects of the very discrimination and xenophobia he used to advocate as a human. As Wikus progressively transforms into an alien, he gradually comes to realise the brutality of the methods and attitudes he once endorsed.
It is at this point in the story that we realise District 9 is much larger in scope than simply an allegory about forced removals during apartheid in South Africa. It is rather more concerned with the nature of racism itself, with the way racist ideology deals with the feared and hated, ‘other.’
By subverting the traditional dynamics of the Alien VS Human iconography, thus presenting the aliens as victimized, fragile and unattractive creatures, the film also challenges us with our own perceptions of race and prejudice. In the first half, it constantly forces us to identify with the perspective of the xenophobe, almost daring us to share the humans’ revulsion against the ugly aliens, however, in the second half of the film, we find ourselves desperately rooting for them and we feel disgusted by the cruel nature of our species. Just as Wikus’s transformation progresses, our perception of the aliens radically changes. Through Wikus’s experience we are able to identify with them and even feel sympathetic towards their kind.
What the film ultimately wants to convey is how misleading and relative the concept of “other” actually is. Throughout the film, the message that stands out is that humanity isn’t something exclusive to humans, that similarities between beings are not exclusive to race or species. Eventually Wikus becomes human by ceasing to be one.
Some reviewers had criticized District 9 for perpetrating racial stereotypes in particular in relation to the Nigerians depicted as morally degenerate criminals and also for the offensive nature of the apartheid allegory that compares oppressed people to aliens.
But these accusations limit their analysis to a superficial level. What they fail to acknowledge is that a key part of the film invites audiences to go beyond the characters’ appearance. It intentionally plays on racial stereotypes, in order to encourage us to challenge them.
Nigerians are certainly not the only negative characters in a film where practically every single human, from the violent, corrupt Afrikaaners to the deferring Black South Africans, are equally portrayed in a horrible light. As for the allegory, the movie is not intended to be so closely aligned with the specific individuals affected by Apartheid, what the aliens represent is simply an exaggerated parody for the worst descriptions used by racists to discredit the ‘other’. In particular the derogatory referral to the aliens as ‘Prawns’ is reminiscent of the Hutu supremacists in Rwanda calling Tutsis ‘cockroaches’. After all, negative terminology is always employed by racists to define and dehumanize their targets, whether Jews by Nazis or the way present-day xenophobes in Europe talk about immigrants.
D-9 boldly addresses the surrealism of racism in an intelligent and thought-provoking way, an approach that employs the fantastic and imaginative nature of Sci-Fi and exploiting the film’s multiple possible interpretations ultimately prompting audiences to think without telling them what to think.