District 9 (Jackson) uses a speculative fiction plot line to address the long term reverberations of apartheid in South Africa. The themes of purity and contamination woven into the story of alien refugees are also addressed in other works by observers of South Africa’s problems, for example, Too Late the Phalarope (Paton). The movie succeeds magnificently at satirizing and spinning out the implications of the rabid xenophobia characteristic of that nation’s European colonists. As science fiction, however, it neglects background issues that someone primarily interested in creating an SF film would perhaps have detailed. The opening section’s documentary style supports the story effectively early on.
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The historical concept that the film covers is a world in which apartheid is nominally dismantled. Blacks and whites work together in a way that would likely have been impossible under apartheid. However, the habits of mind that created apartheid still persist. In the case of South Africa, this could be summarized as an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Old Testament.
This led Dutch colonists to believe, for example, that there exists a chosen, privileged people, and all others are not only inferior to the chosen group, but dangerously impure as well. Thus, when South Authorities discover the mass of malnourished aliens on the marooned ship, their response mirrors the bad old days. They segregate, “militarize”, ignore basics as housing, jobs and education, and then are punitively appalled when the aliens offend their expectations. Almost everyone in the film, including South African blacks, and the resident Nigerian criminals,1 falls into similar xenophobia and exploitation.
This allegory of apartheid explores the pattern that afflicted South Africa for decades, with disturbing effectiveness. The combination of self-satisfied superiority, officiousness, concern for world opinion, and prompt resort to violence all are familiar and plausible from years of news stories about apartheid. Even recent reportage about accused athlete Oscar Pistorius references a persistent culture of guns in South Africa (Perry).
The exploitation of the historic Afrikaner obsession with miscegenation, so poignantly portrayed in Too Late the Phalarope, makes Wikus’ situation even more distressing. The director has captured the worst, most hypocritical aspects of racism and an obsession with otherness. The fact that this ‘other’ resembles a cockroach forces all movie-goers, of whatever race, to adopt a new point of view. The possibility that we as a species might mess up an encounter with an alien intelligence, simply because racism blinds us, is properly scary.
Largely shot in a documentary style, with a jerky hand-held camera feel, the movie hauls the viewer through a bleak landscape, both physically and emotionally. The trash dump setting emphasizes segregation’s and over-crowding’s impact on both residents and environment. We are introduced along the way to Wikus’ casual racism, the borrowed xenophobia of other blacks who are interviewed, the superstitious greed of the Nigerian criminals, the knee-jerk violence of corporate mercenaries, and the venal acquisitiveness of big corporations determined to literally harvest Wikus.
There are humorous touches, such as anti-non-human warning signs, and compelling indigenous music. The camera style changes somewhat over the course of the film. Once the protagonist abandons mainstream society, the conceit of a news cameraman trotting around after him loses plausibility. The end of the movie devolves into an action-thriller.
However, as a true science fiction film, District 9 suffers from a common weakness in the aliens’ backstory. This vagueness regarding the Prawn (they remain nameless) may symbolize racism’s obliviousness to the ‘other’, whether as an individual or in their own context.
As a commentary on the residual dangers of apartheid, this movie works brilliantly. It uses a not-unfamiliar science fiction device to highlight human evil, with an innovative, immediate style. The themes of apartheid’s ills have been addressed in literature before, but for many Western viewers, this movie may offer an important sense of what life was like under that regime in a way that no news story or testimony can accomplish.
District 9. Dir. Peter Jackson. 2009. Film.
Paton, Alan. Too Late the Phalarope. London: Jonathan Cape, 1953. book.
Perry, Alex. “Pistorius And South Africa’s Culture Of Violence.” 2013. Time.
Vanguard. “Govt bans showing of District 9 film in Nigeria.” 2009. Vanguard.
1 The film was apparently banned by the Nigerian government (Vanguard).