September 2, 2009
It’s hard to know whether to love or hate the new film set in South Africa by director Neill Blomkamp. It’s racist, yes. It has a white man as the anti-hero, yes. But why is it so compelling?
Critics have mostly praised Blomkamp for turning the usual plotline of “mean aliens invading with force” on its head. District 9 is the story of aliens from another galaxy who arrive malnourished in Johannesburg, where they are forced to live in a refugee camp alongside Nigerian immigrants. Tensions simmer for 20 years between aliens and native Black South Africans, so that when the film opens the Multi-National United corporation is being paid to move the aliens to another refugee camp, further away. The protagonist—Wikus van der Merwe —is the white anti-hero, an awkward bureaucrat who’s trying to carry out the government-approved and corporate-led relocation.
So far so good, right?
But parts of the blogosphere, and at least my own FaceBook wall, have lit up with justified and spirited attacks on the film for its stereotypical portrayals of black people, specifically of Nigerians. They are depicted in District 9 as cannibalistic gangsters who exploit the poor aliens and trade in illegal weapons. Blomkamp, who’s white and grew up in Johannesburg, openly told Salon magazine that he wanted to portray the Nigerian gangs as they really are in contemporary South Africa, and he wasn’t going to let political correctness get in the way. Thanks, Blomkamp.
District 9 also has the dominant message that’s heard routinely in the evening news and on conservative blogs about immigrants and blacks: they hate each other.
In Blomkamp’s sci-fi film, this hatred manifests when, in mock news coverage, black South Africans take to the streets demanding that the aliens be placed in someone else’s backyard. White people, by contrast, are featured in the film as experts, liberals really, who are sympathetic in a clinical way toward the aliens.
Watching these fictional scenes is reminiscent of the media coverage from New Orleans months after Hurricane Katrina, when the headlines screamed that so-called illegal aliens were arriving to take jobs from native blacks. While Blomkamp has said that the film is satire, this subtle point about racial relations is such a part of the media norm that most audience members, I’m afraid, will miss it.
Given the film’s bloodthirsty Nigerians, its hateful black South Africans and the malnourished aliens, what, then, makes District 9 worth watching?
Wikus, the white anti-hero.
Played superbly by Sharlto Copley, Wikus is the petty bureaucrat whose job it is to evict the aliens. But when he finds himself in the middle of an accident, Wikus becomes overnight a fugitive, one that’s being hunted by his own company and its private military. It is this white character’s emotional journey that makes District 9 such a moving and, in the end, memorable film.
Wikus is familiar to audiences. He’s nerdy and trying to exude an authority he doesn’t possess. He’s the type of man who wakes up, goes to the office, comes home to his lovely blond wife and, once in awhile, probably laments the sad state of the aliens and Nigerians while shaking his head and digging into his home-cooked dinner.
We’ve all worked with a Wikus or at least ridden the bus with him. He means well; it’s just that he’s…an idiot, though a good-hearted one. He does what he’s told without question, but he’s not malicious or mean-spirited.
And this is the frightening part.
Wikus is able to execute a corporate relocation of refugees not from any deep hatred for them, but because he’s self-interested, because he’s been told that life is about climbing the corporate ladder, because he wants to do well by someone else’s standards.
We’d all like to think that we are not Wikus. We’re cooler, smarter or at least not that dorky. But we know from research studies that when people are put in a lab and told by an authoritarian voice to push a button causing another living creature pain, most of us push the button.
District 9 makes us think about how and under what circumstances we decide to do that.
When he comes across a shack filled with alien eggs, Wikus steps aside so corporate military men can blow it up. He even laughs. But anytime that he’s confronted with an adult alien, Wikus stops his military bodyguard from shooting. Likewise, when he tries to get the alien Christopher Johnson to sign an eviction notice, Wikus pleads in a typical paternalistic social worker voice. When Johnson refuses, though, Wikus immediately switches modes. Now, he threatens, with a dogged attempt at authority in his voice, to have the alien’s son removed from the home. The change happens so suddenly that we’re left wondering, “What happened to the nice guy?” The answer: He’s still there.
Watching Wikus in District 9 is a reminder that a good number of people do not feel any meanness about it but they nevertheless quietly and overtly support the corporate and private military removal of refugees and poor people. It happens in the United States with great frequency now as public housing units are torn down and families are displaced while most Americans stay silent.
It is Wikus’s willingness to follow the leader without question about issues that are moral ones, ones about which we should have no doubts, that ultimately feels extremely human and scarier than any corporation or bug from outer space. It’s also what makes District 9 a film we hate to love.
Daisy Hernández is editor of ColorLines magazine and coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women on Today’s Feminism.