A Review of District 9
and why it's message is important in these troubling times...
This is the kind of film that makes me want to curl up into a ball of despair and wish I was never born on this planet.
This is not the first time I've seen the film District 9, however, this is the first time in a long time that I have found myself being so affected by a film and brought to tears. The film is a wonderful expose of what I think to be the human condition, and display of how we navigate and orient ourselves in the world based on racial relations.
In short, the film is essentially about an alien colony being founded on planet Earth after a mothership finds itself stranded within our atmosphere. The aliens congregate in a slum-like village in the badlands of South Africa and are treated as the lowest form of being by the surrounding human population. They are given degrading monikers like "Prawn" and are treated with very little respect considering how advanced their civilization proves itself to be. The story surrounds the main character Wickus, as he works to evict the aliens from their slums and relocate them to what is understood to be concentration camps. The plot thickens when curiosity gets the best of Wickus and leads to his demise in the way of metamorphosing into one of the aliens himself. It takes quite a bit for Wickus to realize the error of his ways and understand what the aliens have been put through at the hands of the humans.
The movie is a deep look at how dynamics between races develop into angst, fear, and something absolutely disgusting. On the surface, it is most obviously a critique of race relations in post-apartheid South Africa between the indigenous Africans and the Dutch. The latter being the colonizers who now live on and have called the territory home for hundreds of years now. It's an interesting relationship to examine as the disdain remains between the 2 parties after some time has elapsed. On the one hand, there are black Africans who know that their roots undoubtedly come from Africa, but on the other, we have a demographic of people who can now also trace back their heritage to the motherland quite a few generations back. What we see stemming from this is the same colonizer-colonized relationship that rears its ugly head time and time again. The invading minority, solely based on thinking they are superior, runs rampant demanding their ideals and way of life be recognized and threatening total annihilation as the only other option. The visual representation of this is something that we still see today in South Africa, the degradation of the black experience simply for the fact of being black.
Though this movie is superficially sci-fi it is also an important immigrant story considering the aliens' prolonged stay on the planet. It is always interesting to see a topic like race relations embodied in some other far-removed format like this. Taking away the deeply rooted emotional ties to the subject allows audiences to reflect on the topic much more objectively and in turn, apply these new realizations to the previous ideology they may have held. Personally, I find the immigrant aspect of this film engrossing for 2 main reasons: my African heritage, but also a personal fascination with human behavior and why we tend to repeat the same antiquated thinking patterns time and time again, even when we know it leads to conflict. Every. Time.
I think a good starting point for dissecting almost every interaction in the film is taking a closer look at the dynamics of command not only on screen but in how we understand them in society.
There is a leader escorted by many followers.
Generally the status quo has it so that men are usually regarded as the rulers and leaders while women and children are to make up the rest of the functioning kingdom. A king is nothing but a person if it were not for his peasants and followers. This “normality” is a separate but similar issue addressed in the movie, not only in the lack of female authority depicted but more notably in Tania’s dual performance as Wickus’ wife and daughter to the director. Throughout the film, the viewer also gets to experience her rollercoaster of emotions as she is being fed facts and lies from all angles. Understandably, she first takes the word of the televised news as fact, but then details are slowly sprinkled from her father who also happens to be a higher up of the MNU, as well as from Wickus himself in brief but desperate phone chats. She is the characteristic weeping widow; can’t keep her composure, can't make decisions for herself, akin to a child who is only capable of believing in what they are told.
This ruler over ruled dynamic goes even further looking through the entire chain of command between all of the demographics. Roughly the order goes MNU, Wickus, the African gangs who live amongst the aliens, then the aliens themselves. Taking a second to look at the relationship between the African gangs and the aliens, there is something more to their miniature world order. In the eyes of the MNU, the African gangs and the aliens may as well share a common ancestor because they are both regarded as lowly. Amongst themselves however, it is the African gangs that have a slight advantage over the aliens. Using the same scare tactics and threats that were used upon them, they are able to subdue the aliens into becoming the townspeople of their little slum kingdom.
What I have noticed to be different about the modes of conquest lies in the reasoning behind it. It is no question that Africa has fallen prey time and time again to invading countries and the hypocritical slander that follows. Over time the African people have in a sense become used to being taken advantage of and it has hardened them in a way that we seldom see in other countries. What I am referring to is the desensitization of a war-torn landscape and the ingrained violent gang mentality of “it is either me or you”.
In this instance, I am referring to Nigerians living in the slums because they too have found themselves as immigrants in the wrong part of Africa. Their relationship with the aliens is one based on meritocracy rather than arrogance. They do understand that the aliens are beyond them in their capabilities and in a way hold a jealous fixation on them. Their antagonist behaviors towards the aliens are motivated by wanting to be just as powerful as them.
The Nigerians suddenly give Wickus the slightest bit of false respect in hearing him out once they realize he is transforming from a being of the oppressor (a Dutch in the MNU) to the target of their oppression(an alien).
They also ceremoniously feast on poached aliens in an attempt to gain their power and use their technology. In a warped way, they embrace the presence of the aliens because they are not only profiting financially but culturally as well.
It is the same genocidal way of thinking that had been previously felt by aliens from the MNU or even by the original South Africans by their Dutch colonizers. The difference is the Dutch mindset comes from a superiority complex while the African mindset comes from a twisted sense of respect.
In the Dutch view of things, Wickus may have been a great example of a lot of the behaviors leading to genocide listed in the pyramid of hate produced by the Anti-Defamation League.
First, there are biased attitudes; visible in Wickus’ constant reiteration that he is not the same as the aliens despite actively turning into one. This goes alongside the corruption of the film's media. The media as we see has a lot to do with the general sentiment of South Africans toward the aliens. They are vilified and further their reputation essentially lies in the hands of the MNU as they can manipulate the news at the push of a button.
Then there are the acts of bias obvious in everyone's nickname for the aliens; prawn.
Discrimination happens at the level of the government when the aliens are designated human names. Or, in instances where Wickus can't see past how illegal the underground structures in the alien slums are in favor of realizing that they may be trying to escape the planet. He is more concerned with getting them in trouble and keeping them prisoner on earth than letting them find a way to leave.
Bias motivated violence is just as apparent. Many of the MNU workers are sadistically charged to desecrate the entire alien population. Wickus may be on the more subdued end of this spectrum but he definitely shows blatant disregard for any rights the aliens may have. A great example of this is his attempt at evicting an alien who knows the method of approach is unlawful but can't communicate it. Wickus takes advantage of this language barrier, forcing the MNU’s will upon the alien.
Finally, there is the point of genocide. The entire opening of the film is being caused by the movement of District 9 aliens to concentration camps. No further explanation needed.
This is what I see to be the pitfall of human society and the reason I find this movie so wonderful and unsettling. The alternate South Africa in the film only took about 20 years to reach the top of the pyramid of hate. These behaviors of hatred are so deeply instilled in humanity that they play out again and again in different scenarios, so much so that there exists a model to describe how it develops in the order that it does. For such a phenomenon I alone truly have no idea how a solution would even come to fruition. It would have to begin with a lot of deep, perhaps painful, reflection in an effort to rewire the brain and evolve our thinking processes as a society. A kind of cultural revolution like one human kind has never experienced before needs to take place in order for us to take a momentous step in advancing as a species. Obviously (most, hopefully all) people would enjoy an existence in a world where people seek to understand and respect each other in all aspects of themselves and are completely assured that any other person they come into contact with is meeting them with a mutual attentiveness for the others wellbeing; not in the sense of what one may need but in the sense of how they feel once walking away from the interaction. A world where everyone may still be free to wholly be themselves and express their opinions, however have no wish to impose that way of life on others and allow the same respect that allows them to live their own ‘true’ freedom to others. A world where there may still be disagreement and friction but no true hate or ill-will for one another, and have such a complex form of thinking passed down from generation to generation. A world that sounds like it may only exist within a pipe dream; one where you could actually imagine trusting your fellow stranger, not because you agree with everything they do, but because you both are human and know what it is like to share the same experience on that most basic level. An experience that encapsulates knowing what happiness, fear, anguish, anger, freedom, and sadness feel like, rather than the personal experiences that shaped the onset of these sentiments for each individual. Though it does sound quite far-fetched the simple first step may lie in being cognizant and fully aware of oneself and having the strength and humility to recognize being on that first tier of the pyramid of hate and being able to stop dead in your tracks and reassess. It's easy to want to live in such an idyllic world but it is important to remember that everyone wants to reap the benefits of kindness but no one wants to be kind for the sake of kindness. Until such a day comes to pass, I will be curled up in a ball of despair, wishing I was never born on this planet out of fear for my fellow humans. Be kind.
“Pyramid of Hate.” ADL.ORG, Anti-Defamation League, www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/pyramid-of-hate.pdf.