Tuesday, September 8, 2009
The Racial Politics of District 9
Warning: Definite spoilers ahead.
As I watched Winkus Van De Merwe, the titular anti-hero of Neil Blomkamp's feature District 9, grow a conscience along with his new "Prawn" body parts, I couldn't help wondering how the film would have been received if the Other in the film had been brown people instead of large insectile aliens. Winkus's character arc is familiar from well-intentioned old-fashioned narratives where the interloping white man infiltrates an othered culture, either of purpose or by accident, comes to understand the gentle natives and eventually turns tail on his own kind to help them escape their oppressors. It's an old story, the White Man's Burden, one where only the outsider can appropriately organize the pure-hearted but disorganized othered mass and lead them to freedom.
I don't think a full indictment of Blomkamp's movie is in order - it's a fresh take on the science fiction epic, and compellingly explores several themes that are ripe for inclusion in pop culture discourse, foremost among them the issue of displaced and refugee communities. Still, setting the film in Johannesburg and involving another refugee population - that of the Nigerians who also live in the slums and scam the alien population - gave Blomkamp the opportunity to make a more considered inquiry into the issues of race and culture present in his fictional situation. I can't say I was too impressed with the garden-variety witchdoctor-employing African warlord Obesandjo, who had the capacity to be expanded into a pivotal player but remained a stereotype of a ca-razy African primitive. Also of interest / frustrating: the fact that military contractors have joined the ranks of Nazis and, well, giant insectile aliens in that rarified class of villains who can be killed with impunity. And I have to agree with Rich at Fourfour's complaint about the film's inexplicable switch from straightforward fake-documentary to first-person narrative film.
Still, I enjoyed District 9 and found myself moved by most of its emotional tricks: the kind and humane alien, Christopher Johnson, and his paternal relationship with his son, as well as Winkus's enduring love for his wife Tanya. It's also one of the most uncannily unsettling movies I've seen in a long time, making the most of its odd marriage of faux-documentary style to the constant threat of Cronenberg-level body violence. The film's greatest strength is Winkus himself, a weird Michael Scott of alien management who we manage to root both for and against. I will be interested to see the sequel, currently known as District 10, and see how much further Blomkamp can take his allegory.