In the opening few minutes of District 9 I was really excited at the possibility that it was going to be intelligent cine-commentary on the horrors of Apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and segregation. But it’s not smart, not true to history, and just when you think it’s going to bust open racial stereotypes it perpetuates them instead. It says a lot about transformation and human destruction, but in a way that feels shallow and simplistic. Movie critic Armond White aptly describes it this way,
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.
(this is where you stop reading if you don’t want me to spoil the plot twists for you).
The white man stands up against his own and protects the alien, but the aliens never stand up for themselves. Despite being physically and technologically superior, the aliens are portrayed as primitive hyper-breeding drones who’ve lost their intellectual head. This is clearly where the film stops reconciling social commentary with entertainment, abandons credibility, and goes straight for box office gold.
The Black Nigerians in the movie are depicted as criminal and cannibalistic. The filmmakers really veer into deeply offensive territory here. As one of three groups invested in the outcome of the film’s conflict, the other two being the aliens and militarized MNU (a private agency in charge of District 9), the Nigerians are the least humanized of the three. Never once are they shown to display empathy or provided any character depth. It would be great if the filmmakers were trying to make a point about oppressed peoples being forced to prey upon each other, but the racist symbolism overshadows that theme.
Of course, a lot of movies display outrageous racial stereotypes, so I don’t want to judge it more harshly than say Transformers. But it’s tough to get over the fact that its makers obviously want to send us a deeper message, but don’t deliver. Transformers wasn’t trying to say anything, it was just plain dumb and offensive.
District 9 does however have brief moments of insight, like when one of the academic commentators who chime in throughout the film, says that the term prawns, the common name for the aliens, is clearly derogatory. This is the case with the real word commonly used to describe undocumented immigrants in the U.S., alien. Or when one of Johannesburg’s residents says that he feels for the prawns, but it’s not like they are even from another country, they are from another planet. We hear this a lot in real life talk about foreigners – the factors that make them undeserving of our sympathy and aid. We feel for the people dying in refugee boats and border deserts, but they shouldn’t be trying to come here in the first place. Here is a video clip from the film’s website to illustrate:
The other redeeming qualities of the film were the breathtaking imagery and special effects. Visually, it’s a masterpiece. Despite all its intellectual shortcomings, the creators at least have a chance to make up for it in the inevitable sequel. Next time, they shouldn’t try so hard to provide something other than pure entertainment that preys shamelessly on our fears, a la Cloverfield.
I give it an A for entertainment (I for one was enthralled and suitably grossed out), but an F for historical sensitivity and complexity.