District 9: Loved It? Hated It?

By Daisy Hernández

The new film has been attacked for racist stereotypes, but it’s still worth watching.

It’s hard to know whether to love or hate the new film set in South Africa by director Neill Blomkamp. It’s racist, yes. It has a white man as the anti-hero, yes. But why is it so compelling?

Critics have mostly praised Blomkamp for turning the usual plotline of “mean aliens invading with force” on its head. District 9 is the story of aliens from another galaxy who arrive malnourished in Johannesburg, where they are forced to live in a refugee camp alongside Nigerian immigrants. Tensions simmer for 20 years between aliens and native Black South Africans, so that when the film opens the Multi-National United corporation is being paid to move the aliens to another refugee camp, further away. The protagonist—Wikus van der Merwe —is the white anti-hero, an awkward bureaucrat who’s trying to carry out the government-approved and corporate-led relocation.
So far so good, right?

But parts of the blogosphere, and at least my own FaceBook wall, have lit up with justified and spirited attacks on the film for its stereotypical portrayals of black people, specifically of Nigerians. They are depicted in District 9 as cannibalistic gangsters who exploit the poor aliens and trade in illegal weapons. Blomkamp, who’s white and grew up in Johannesburg, openly told Salon magazine that he wanted to portray the Nigerian gangs as they really are in contemporary South Africa, and he wasn’t going to let political correctness get in the way. Thanks, Blomkamp.

District 9 also has the dominant message that’s heard routinely in the evening news and on conservative blogs about immigrants and blacks: they hate each other.

In Blomkamp’s sci-fi film, this hatred manifests when, in mock news coverage, black South Africans take to the streets demanding that the aliens be placed in someone else’s backyard. White people, by contrast, are featured in the film as experts, liberals really, who are sympathetic in a clinical way toward the aliens.

Watching these fictional scenes is reminiscent of the media coverage from New Orleans months after Hurricane Katrina, when the headlines screamed that so-called illegal aliens were arriving to take jobs from native blacks. While Blomkamp has said that the film is satire, this subtle point about racial relations is such a part of the media norm that most audience members, I’m afraid, will miss it.

Given the film’s bloodthirsty Nigerians, its hateful black South Africans and the malnourished aliens, what, then, makes District 9 worth watching?

Wikus, the white anti-hero.

Played superbly by Sharlto Copley, Wikus is the petty bureaucrat whose job it is to evict the aliens. But when he finds himself in the middle of an accident, Wikus becomes overnight a fugitive, one that’s being hunted by his own company and its private military. It is this white character’s emotional journey that makes District 9 such a moving and, in the end, memorable film.

Wikus is familiar to audiences. He’s nerdy and trying to exude an authority he doesn’t possess. He’s the type of man who wakes up, goes to the office, comes home to his lovely blond wife and, once in awhile, probably laments the sad state of the aliens and Nigerians while shaking his head and digging into his home-cooked dinner.

We’ve all worked with a Wikus or at least ridden the bus with him. He means well; it’s just that he’s…an idiot, though a good-hearted one. He does what he’s told without question, but he’s not malicious or mean-spirited.

And this is the frightening part.


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