I’ve watched Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 several times over the past few years, and each viewing has elicited a completely different reaction from me. The first time I saw it, I enjoyed myself, but I didn’t give the movie much thought. Sure, I knew it was supposed to be an allegory for Apartheid and racism, but I personally felt that the director spent too much time on flashy fight sequences and special effects for any real social commentary to get through. The next time I viewed the picture, I absolutely hated it. To me, what had initially seemed a creative commentary on racism had instead become a disgusting display of racist stereotypes. The fact that the Aliens, who are supposed to represent South Africa’s Black population, were portrayed as stupid, ugly and easily provoked to violence, was very troubling to me. Worse still were the film’s actual Black characters, who were either shown as cannibal thugs (the Nigerian gangsters) or docile sidekicks frequently referred to as “boy.” But what really bothered me about the movie, and what I didn’t understand was, if the film was supposed to tell the story of Apartheid, why wasn’t there any Alien equivalent to Nelson Mandela, the ANC, the Truth Commission or any of the other people and parties involved during that period in South African history? Needless to say, I felt no strong urge to watch the movie again.
The third, and final time I saw the film, my feelings toward it were considerably warmer. I realized that, while the movie did show its fair share of racial stereotypes, that was most likely done deliberately as a means to illustrate how racist whites viewed non-white people. Also, if you think about it, its much more realistic, and even respectful, to show an oppressed people as being divided and flawed, and not simply noble, unified savages. Plus, the violence that we see the Aliens exhibiting towards each other could easily be seen as the tribal warfare among indigenous Africans wrought by European colonization. Anyone whose familiar with African history knows that several of the ethnic conflicts in the region–like the one between the Hutus and the Tutsis–were actually created, or else exacerbated by, the Europeans, who got them to hate one another as a means of keeping them subservient. But anyway, another thing that I liked was the fact that, this time when I watched the movie, I was able to find some fictional parallels to actual people. I saw the two main characters, Wikus van der Merwe and Christopher Johnson, as representations of presidents FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela respectively. Both van der Merwe and de Klerk are Afrikaners (Dutch South Africans), and both initially find themselves at the heart of the system that is oppressing people. While both do eventually end up helping those that they were oppressing, they do so out of self interest, and not moral conscience. This, while something I originally disliked, actually ended up being an aspect of the film that I most appreciated. See, very rarely do people do the right things just for the sake of doing them. They have to feel that they can benefit from their good deeds in some way. Otherwise, why go to all the trouble? Wikus helps the aliens because the idea of becoming one is so thoroughly repugnant to him that he’ll do anything to stop the transformation from occurring. Similarly, de Klerk only brought about the end of Apartheid because South Africa couldn’t hope to survive with international sanctions crippling its economy. Yes, he did end up doing the right thing, but for the wrong reasons, and having his fictional counterpart do so as well is both realistic and interesting. As for Christopher, District 9’s only Alien protagonist, I saw him as a very good thematic representation of Nelson Mandela. Both were trapped in places where they had no rights and no freedom. For Mandela, that place was Robben island. For Christopher, the prison is Earth. Both found themselves separated from their traditional culture and way of life–in District 9, the filmmakers illustrate this by having the Aliens be physically unable to reach their spaceship–but both manage to maintain their dignity and, eventually, find a way to work with those who are oppressing them. Both lay the groundwork for reform, but don’t magically bring about an end to the injustices that are occurring. In real life, Mandela’s presidency did mark a huge turning point in South African history, but it didn’t solve several issues, like mass poverty among Blacks, urban violence and crime, all of which are still present to this day. Similarly, Christopher does manage to regain control of the spaceship and to leave the Earth, but his actions don’t really effect the vast majority of Aliens, who are simply shepherded into a new ghetto and left to wait for change.
To me, having a film discussing race end on such an open-ended, ambiguous note was the best thing to do because, whether we like it or not, race will always be a part of our society and our lives. We might pass laws prohibiting discrimination, we might do our best to be respectful and open-minded, but we’ll never be able to escape certain thoughts or expectations we have about certain groups. For instance, some White person might be completely for equal pay, employment and educational opportunities for Blacks, and yet still feel nervous when riding a bus with them. Is it right for that White person to have such contradictory thoughts and feelings? Well, in a perfect world, I would say no. But, the fact is, we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world where this kind of hypocritical thinking is quite common. See, contrary to what people like Karl Marx might think, equality, be it racial or otherwise, simply isn’t feasible in the unfair world we live in. The fact that one filmmaker, Neil Blomkamp, decided to have his fictional world be just as biased and unbalanced as the real one is promising to me. Why? Because if we, as a society, can accept our own limitations, even if it is just in a film, then maybe, just maybe, we can make the right choices for the future.