By Guest Contributor Nicole Stamp, originally published at [pageslap]
Saw District 9 tonight, the alien movie by Neill Blomkamp and produced by Peter Jackson. I thought it was appallingly racist; here’s why. (Spoilers ahead.)
Basically, 20 years ago, a million crustacean-like space aliens arrived in Johannesberg. They’re forced to live in a horrible slum called District 9, and now the human citizens want them gone, so they’re about to be evicted from their slum and relocated to a concentration camp outside the city.
If you look at the film as an apartheid allegory, it has problems right off the bat. The aliens are loathsome, trash-eating vermin who fight endlessly, destroy property for no reason, and piss on their own homes, which isn’t a truthful or flattering allegorical comparison for actual black South Africans under apartheid. Apartheid is terrible because humans were denied rights. The “apartheid” of these aliens isn’t that terrible – it’s kind of justifiable, because they’re actually dangerous, violent and destructive. I think it would be a better allegory, and a more sophisticated movie, if the aliens weren’t unpleasant. If they were peaceful and kind, but the humans still demonized them, the film would be much more chilling; the horror would be “man’s inhumanity to lobster-man”, not “eew gross they eat pig heads!”
But to my knowledge, District 9 does not explicitly present itself as an apartheid allegory, and changing the nature of the aliens basically makes it a different movie, so I’m gonna give it a pass in this post (although I’m very open to hearing other people’s thoughts about the allegorical angle). I think the choice to make the aliens disgusting was mostly artistic license, designed to make the film’s tone and visuals more gritty and scary, rather than any attempt to actually be representative of black people oppressed by apartheid. So that wasn’t my problem with this film.
The basic plot was fine: essentially, the human majority herds an alien race of minorities into a ghetto. Eventually the human protagonist gets to know one of the aliens, empathizes, and tries to help him. On some level, the hero comes to realize that the aliens are unlucky individuals who simply desire home and safety, same as everyone else.
The main human, Wikus van der Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley, who, incidentally, is great) is a complex character who does the wrong thing (illegally evicts the aliens), then does the right thing (tries to prevent his soldiers from killing aliens for no reason) then does the wrong thing (torches alien babies and gleefully compares their exploding bodies to popcorn), and then eventually does the right thing (risks his life to help alien Christopher Johnson get back to the mothership, albeit for self-serving reasons). That’s good drama; all of the behaviour is motivated; and the alien and his cute little kid even end up being pretty likeable. That’s all cool. I have no problems with the Wikus/Christopher Johnson storyline.
But on the sidelines of all this non-racist action, there’s a subplot storyline with a bunch of Nigerian “refugee gansters” who also live in District 9, and who traffic food and weapons with the aliens. And that’s where the racism is. The portrayal of the black mobsters is disgustingly racist.
The Nigerian gangsters are bloodthirsty, dishonest thugs, which is not a big deal- they’re gangsters, I get it. They see the aliens as mere cockroaches with money, so they don’t treat them well, and that makes perfect sense. They’re just cruel, self-interested mercenaries, and in this, they’re no worse than the film’s (mostly white) government officials, who cold-bloodedly torture and murder the aliens. So far no racism, just characters with motivations.
The Nigerians have a wailing “witch doctor”. Who instructs them to eat the aliens. And they do it. Bloody, wriggling, and raw, of course.
We’re told that the black prostitutes “service” the aliens sexually. ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME??!
And when Wikus’ arm grows a claw, the Nigerian gang boss starts licking his chops, eager to commit cannibalism.
Yup, that’s Hollywood’s Africa, isn’t it. Black Africans shown as degenerate savages who’ll have sex with non-humans and are pretty damn eager to eat people.
The thing that really upsets me is that most people who see this movie won’t question, or even notice, this incredibly racist portrayal. It wasn’t even necessary for the plot, and in fact the racist elements actually created some plot holes.
The gang boss could have tried to take Wikus hostage, and use him and his scaly arm as a weapon, same as the white government tried to do. By trying to eat his arm “to gain his powers” the gang boss was risking everything. If eating the arm didn’t work, Gang-Guy would lose Wikus’ arm entirely, so his hunger for human flesh actually risked the only interface he had to enable the alien weapons. Drugging Wikus unconscious then just puppeteering his lobster hand onto the triggers of various alien flamethrowers would be a much cleverer- not to mention more palatable- plan. Not only does the intended cannibalism paint the black man as bloodthirsty and disgusting, but it’s also a needless risk that could sabotage the character’s goals. (Actually, logic suggests that both the gang boss and the government probably would have taken a few aliens hostage and forced them to shoot the guns long ago anyway, but that’s another story).
And the idea that the prostitutes had been servicing the aliens actually created a huge plot hole. All of South Africa knew that prostitutes had long been having sex with the aliens; so they would also know that Wikus couldn’t have begun an alien transformation from alien sexual contact, since the sexual transmission of alien DNA had already been in place for 20 years of interspecies prostitution. (I get it that the point was just to alarm the citizens so they would help the government in its hunt for Wikus, but still, things could at least make sense).
So why the racist parts? Why can’t the Nigerians just be people with logical motives like money and weapons? Why do they have to go out of their way to be ooga-booga savages? The film would still have held up without the narrative elements of cannibalism and interspecies sex. Why do the blacks have to be sexual degenerates who will eat filth and violate the oldest human taboo by committing cannibalism? The only reason I see is to shoehorn some cheap visceral thrills into the movie. It’s lazy, sensationalist writing, and it diminishes the potential for intelligent, nuanced allegory. And it doesn’t even make sense. Man, it pissed me off.