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What I disliked about District 9

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This quote sums up District 9:

The humans’ treatment of the “prawns,” which is clearly modelled on the Apartheid government’s actions, as well as the local masses’ recent xenophobic behaviour, is quite horrible – but it’s also difficult to stop laughing if your tastes in humour are cynical and politically incorrect..

I enjoyed it. I really did. It couldn’t have been the rational part of me that had enjoyed the movie; it must’ve been the irrational part. Or perhaps it’s because there were many South Africanisms in the movie, especially Wikus’ use of ‘fok’, ‘fokken’ and ‘kak’. Another thing, and this I read on someone else’s review, is that neither the Pentagon nor the White House had any involvement. How’s that for awesome and refreshing?

But there were many scenes that upset me – visually and morally. Hakeem Kae-Kazim, the Hotel Rwanda actor, criticised the movie; and Armond White also criticised the movie. Other reviews give it far more praise than scorn: NYT says it is a “smart, swift new film from the South African director Neill Blomkamp”;Rotten Tomatoes gives it a score of 89%

The movie does have many flaws. And, let’s admit it, it’s a racist anti-racism movie. But it did have a few scenes that stood out.

Another quote that sums up what I think about the movie: “But I don’t think that means we can give it a free pass from the charge that a significant aspect of the film IS racist or assume that because some of the film is anti-racist, nothing in it can be racist.”

So, besides the plot holes, here are the things that I noticed – and that alarmed me – about District 9:

We see few women

Christopher’s son doesn’t have a mother. The only women we meet are connected to Wikus – his wife, his mother and his colleagues – or they are  witch doctors or prostitutes. But we don’t even get to meet the prostitutes: we only see them doing the things – interspecies sex – they do. And the witchdoctor looks scary, no? “…she might as well have had a bone through her nose and been muttering “unga munga”"

When do we get a woman [of colour?] as a main character? And when do we get a woman who has more than a couple of sentences in a Sci-Fi movie?

Soweto’s citizens are barbarians

Does Blomkamp not know that Desmond Tutu lives in Soweto? And that there are many middle class people living in Soweto? Surely they do not all riot?

The Nigerians speak Xhosa

Nigerians are not Xhosa; Nigerians speak Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Kanuri and English, among others. I understand that the drug lord could’ve used South Africans to work for him but we never know for sure; all we know is that the Nigerians run the cat food scam, not South Africans.

The fast food manager had a gun

Why would any fast food manager have a gun hidden away in case someone like Wikkus limps in?

Black people – Nigerians, mostly – are uncivilised.

Yes, there are Nigerian drug lords living in South Africa. But there are also many Nigerians who live legal lives. We only get to see the bad ones; we don’t see ‘good ones’. Why not portray one or two ‘lesser evil’ Nigerians?

Contrast this to the white people whom Blomkamp depict as rational and civilised, even though they are evil. Their characters are a bit more well-developed – one even has a family! – and more thought out than the black characters.

The lone good black character is yet another cardboard cut out figure and we don’t even get to see much of him.

The riots reminded me far too much of 2008′s xenophobic riots

It was uncomfortable to see how black people are once more depicted as savages who run around with sticks, looting everything in sight. They could’ve shown one or two middle class people in their middle class Soweto home, talking about how they’d rather the aliens leave for good.

But no. He doesn’t want to depart from the familiar trope of African savages – he probably reckons that his mostly American, mostly white, northern hemisphere audience doesn’t understand anything that differs from their preconceived ideas about Africa.

This be no Apartheid/District 6 allegory

I’ve heard this one so many times, from so many different people. I don’t agree with it and I’ve only encountered one or two dismissals of this theory.

The aliens and real South Africans of colour only have two things in common: they lived in shacks and they weren’t welcome. And not all POC South Africans lived in slums during the 1960s and 1970s; many lived in neighbourhoods similar to ones we see in white areas.

POC in Apartheid South Africa didn’t destroy trains for ‘no reason’; they destroyed property in protest of their treatment by the NP government.

I’d love to hear a good argument for why I should see District 9 as an Apartheid allegory.

Summation

You’ll enjoy it much more if you can switch off your brain by ignoring – or celebrating – the racism, the gaps in the plot and the needless action scenes.

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Written by Joy-Mari Cloete

September 7th, 2009 at 6:56 pm

10 Responses to 'What I disliked about District 9'

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  1. yes and no.

    No: (a) Tutu lives in Cape Town not soweto, (b) fast food managers in SA are likely to have a gun not for wikus but as protection from getting robbed (not that this makes things safer for them as they’d be more likely to get shot if they pull out the gun)

    Yes: You are correct that this is a racist anti-racist film a la Helen Zille. It is also a sexist anti-sexist film and a xenophobic anti-xenophobic film. This is the way life has become here in South Africa. For instance, a white South African can no longer be overtly racist these days. Instead they have to couch their racism by saying things like: ‘I dont see race’ and ‘Some of my best friends are black’. This film is the same way. There’s wikus’ assistant who plays the token good middle class black guy. And as you say, women are trivialised because they can neither be a hero or evil – they are merely there being used but the evil or good men in the movie. This is the new non-racialism/non-sexism – removing the possibility of real transformation.

    The same goes with the aliens. There’s only two alien characters that have any sort of depth to them. The rest are ‘the dumb workers’. In other words, they are identical to the way many white South Africans view poor black South Africans such as those that lived in Chiawelo until they were evicted out of gentrifying Soweto (and thus made filming the movie there easier – how ironic!). Essentially, the film is saying that the poor underlclass cannot save themselves. They need smart and civilised heros like Christopher and Wikus to save them.

    In other words, District 9 is an anti-apartheid, pro-post-apartheid (neo-apartheid) movie.

    But this is where I think this blogger is wrong. “They could’ve shown one or two middle class people in their middle class Soweto home, talking about how they’d rather the aliens leave for good.” Are you implying that only middle class blacks can think in humanistic terms towards the ‘other’?

    I enjoyed the movie too. I especially liked how it mirrors the way the mainstream media here in SA treats poor black South African shackdwellers today forcing them to ‘Temporary Relocation Areas’ far away from the city. This movie is a perfect allegory to South Africa today. But this movie is only a perfect allegory to South Africa written from the perspective of liberal white South Africans that tout racist non-racialism.

    Its sad because this movie could have been amazingly deep. It could have delved into what daily life at District 9 might have been like. It could have shown that there was likely a lot of good things going on in District 9 just like SA’s informal settlements. That there probably would be a lot of cooperation between District 9 aliens and other poor Soweto residents to help one another survive. It could have shown that shack settlements are a legitimate response of oppressed people who are refused the ‘right to the city’ and that they are simultaneously places of despair and hope. Anyone who has spent time in a ‘slum’ knows this is true.

    If District 9 was a true anti-racist film. If it told the truth. Then it would have shown the aliens banding together and protesting their forced removal (rather than being to stupid to realise their common predicament).

    Jared

    8 Sep 09 at 11:03 am

  2. Hey, Jared

    Great comment. And at the time I thought Desmond Tutu lives in Soweto. I should’ve googled to see whether I’m correct.

    I, too, wondered why Wikus had to be a white guy. Why not a black guy? Or a woman? But that won’t pull in the viewers, right? It’ll alienate the 18- to 24-year-old male demographic who launches a thousand blockbusters.

    You ask whether I think only “middle class blacks can think in humanistic terms towards the ‘other’?”. No, I wanted there to be some balance. They showed the poor, oppressed shackdwellers. Why not also show us black people who aren’t 1) toy-toying, and 2) poor.

    And yes, the movie could’ve been deep. But I don’t think that was their intention. They wanted a blockbuster, and it seems as though that’s what they got.

    Joy-Mari Cloete

    8 Sep 09 at 4:52 pm

  3. some people thought it was deep …. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2009/sep/08/district-9-racism

    and i’d imagine the director is one of those….

    antieviction

    8 Sep 09 at 9:27 pm

  4. I think the movie summed up human nature pretty well. Forget about Nigerians, blacks, aliens etc. It shows human nature.

  5. So we should just ignore the stereotypes? And not get worked up over nothing?

    Joy-Mari Cloete

    29 Sep 09 at 1:23 pm

  6. What I enjoyed most about the movie, and it probably sounds shallow of me, is that it was accepted into the mainstream while still being very South African.

    I suppose it’s because cultural/media imperialism is one of my bugbears, but it was nice to see an SA movie doing well in the US box office without losing its South Africanness.

    pattilain

    23 Oct 09 at 1:14 pm

  7. Nah, not shallow. It’s a good point. Do you think Americans ‘got’ all the South African reference points? I’m thinking of seeing the movie again. I missed out on the first couple of minutes.

    Joy-Mari Cloete

    23 Oct 09 at 2:20 pm

  8. I’m pretty sure they didn’t. But how often do we watch a movie thinking “Why is it funny that she comes from Omaha?” but still enjoy the movie?

    Perhaps watching a violent scifi set in another country makes people feel cultured, or that they’re being somewhat intellectual.

    pattilain

    23 Oct 09 at 2:24 pm

  9. Very true. Funny how I yet again fell into the trap of ‘othering’ South African movies… American movies are so ‘normal’ — we all take it for granted that everyone will just ‘get’ everything about American movies.

    Joy-Mari Cloete

    23 Oct 09 at 2:51 pm

  10. It’s very hard not to “other” South African (or anything other than American) stuff. We’re taught anything other than American is “foreign”, to the point of believing that of ourselves!

    I’ve even noticed when leaving comments or blogging, I use Americanisms (gas instead of petrol, store instead of shop, etc) to pander to the majority of internet users.

    I draw the line at spelling though :-P

    pattilain

    23 Oct 09 at 2:58 pm

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