just watched district 9. before i went, i heard a variety of reviews, from “totally racist” to “comprehensive critique on humanity” to “awesome action flick”. all i heard was: aliens in slums outside johannesberg, and i knew i had to see for myself.
upon watching it, i could totally see how folks could walk away offended on a number of fronts. i have my thoughts on the film, but i first want to offer this series of questions as a guide to enjoying District 9, or at least complexifying your viewing experience:
1. given that the first essential foundational thing to remember about this movie is: it’s a hollywood alien movie produced by the guy who did lord of the rings, and written-directed by one of his protege (and not one of his African protege on the benefit-of-the-doubt chance he has those)…do you honestly expect an in-depth treaty on race, immigration, apartheid, militarism or even the IDEA of aliens?
2. when/if you watched lord of the rings, did you see it as an unsubtle manifesto against capitalism and racism via the metaphor of the ring (power) in the hands of white wizards, and that ultimately power used to control others is destructive in any hands? or did you just see hobbits and orcs and elves?
3. what comes to your mind when you see a forced slum situation where the visibly and/or culturally “different” population is treated like animals to be contained, detained, or eliminated? south african apartheid? jews in germany during the holocaust? ICE detention centers in the u.s.? gaza and the west bank in modern day palestine-israel? all of the above?
4. can you consider that, based on previous experience, indigenous people (in south africa, or the u.s., or canada, or ANYWHERE) might have a justifiably suspicious or close-minded reaction to a new population showing up on the scene? that is to say, what are the clear signs to differentiate between colonizer and immigrant?
5. are you able to acknowledge that mercenary forces and mystical belief systems exist in nearly every nation, of every ethnicity?
***SPOILER ALERT BUT NOT A BAD ONE***
my opinion: this is an amazing, surprising flick. its gory, action-packed, and presents an analysis counter to the american norm in terms of immigrants (or “aliens”).
i didn’t go in expecting much in terms of the analysis, but i was really pleased to see the clear condemnation of militarized containment of a people (or in this case, a species with cognitive abilities on par with or beyond our own). also noteworthy was the highlighted hypocrisy of polite colonization, fueled by an unquestioned sense of superiority.
what i saw gelled with my own lived experience: in my lifetime i have seen people whose first language is not english treated like animals and children, regardless of their expertise, intelligence, kindness, humanity, or accomplishments. in my lifetime i have witnessed the work of mercenaries of all kinds, from all backgrounds.
the best and worst traits, beliefs and behaviors are present in every person, in every people, in every nation. the leaps and bounds made in this film left several people and nations vastly underdeveloped and underrepresented – especially the nigerians and the quiet south african whistle-blowing hero.
in fact, the low point of this film is the representation of nigerians, the only mercenaries called out by name and seen engaging in behavior that could easily be respected as culturally specific (eating something in order to take on it’s power), but through director neill blomkamp’s lens comes off as gross and ignorant.
that said, all of the african and white mercenary and military characters get dismissed as wrong, stupid, violent, misled, power-hungry and horrible. only the aliens show any signs of what we so casually refer to as “humanity”.
and ultimately, in this film, only the merging of human and alien is able to open the eyes of the person abusing power. i am the living merger between two historically abusive and abusing, battling, othered peoples. i sometimes wonder if anything other than seeing the “other” in our own families will make us realize that the only sustainable path forward is the one we walk together.
octavia butler offers us the wisdom that “change is god.” but even the most open-minded of us still tend to think almost entirely in terms of our little container, our living spaceship hurtling in orbit through space. how much change can we accept and still see the divinity of it?
that is to say – if a massive alien ship full of living creatures was hovering over your city tomorrow, and if the creatures inside were stronger than you, and you couldn’t understand them, how would you react? and to make it current – how do you react now to the changing population of your city, town, world? to the constant migration and flow of people, from causes both natural and man-made, which is a part of our human existence? how do you react to abuses of power by your own people, or nation? are you an active participant, or a taxpaying passive colonizer, torturer…are you polite, or afraid, or open?
this movie can be very much about today’s world, and the horrors we are inflicting on each other at this moment. it can be about our choice, to turn away from domination and turn towards listening.
i will say it is much more enjoyable if you resist an easy watch, and compel yourself to think as much as you can the whole time.