Movie Mom

“District 9” is one of the best-reviewed films of the 2009. Entertainment Weekly put it on the cover and called it the must-see movie of the summer. Most critics described it as a thinking person’s action movie because it presents its humans vs. aliens story in the context of apartheid and other historic incidents of racial, religious, and ethnic separation.
Desson Thomson, one of my favorite critics, said in The Wrap:

What’s ingenious about “District 9” (co-written and directed by South African born Neill Blomkamp) is the way it cannily appropriates symbols and clichés of the apartheid regime of South Africa — the snarling dogs, the barefoot kids, the depressing shanty houses, the dust, poverty and hopeless — and repurposes them into a stunning sci-fi movie.

It’s our recognition of those symbols that gives the movie heft. We are watching apartheid in parenthesis. And yet, we are seeing it in an entirely different light.

But at least two African-American critics believe that the film perpetuates stereotypes more significantly than it addresses racism. Frequently contrarian critic Armond White of the New York Press has been attacked by fanboys and other critics for his scathing review of the film. White says that it:

suggests a meager, insensitive imagination. It’s a nonsensical political metaphor. Consider this: District 9’s South Africa-set story makes trash of that country’s Apartheid history by constructing a ludicrous allegory for segregation that involves human beings (South Africa’s white government, scientific and media authorities plus still-disadvantaged blacks) openly ostracizing extraterrestrials in shanty-town encampments that resemble South Africa’s bantustans.

It’s been 33 years since South Africa’s Soweto riots stirred the world’s disgust with that country’s regime where legal segregation kept blacks “apart” and in “hoods” (thus, Apartheid) unequal to whites. District 9’s sci-fi concept celebrates–yes, that’s the word–Soweto’s legacy by ignoring the issues of self-determination (where a mass demonstration by African students on June 16, 1976, protested their refusal to learn the dominant culture’s Afrikaans language). District 9 also trivializes the bloody outcome where an estimated 500 students were killed, by ignoring that complex history and enjoying its chaos. Let’s see if the Spielberg bashers put-off by the metaphysics in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will be as offended by District 9’s mangled anthropology.

District 9 represents the sloppiest and dopiest pop cinema–the kind that comes from a second-rate film culture. No surprise, this South African fantasia from director Neill Blomkamp was produced by the intellectually juvenile New Zealander Peter Jackson. It idiotically combines sci-fi wonderment with the inane “realism” of a mockumentary to show the South African government’s xenophobic response to a global threat: Alien-on-earth population has reached one million, all housed–like Katrina refugees or Soweto protesters–in restricted territories.

White says that the aliens in the movie want to go home while the blacks in South Africa wanted to stay and engaged in one of the most stirring and peaceful revolutions in history. And White also objects to the portrayal of black Nigerian gangsters. “These malevolent blacks are also grinning cannibals who later threaten Wikus’ life. They’re a new breed of racist swagger; the kingpin sits in a wheelchair, big, black and scary.”
I have been a fan of DC Girl@The Movies for a long time and especially like her essay on the failures of most movies about racism. Her comments on “District 9” are insightful and thought-provoking. Like White, she objects to the portrayal of the black Africans as “Ooga-booga negroes who think *eating* the aliens will somehow give them their ~*magic*~, gun-toting gangstas, hos, and yes, we even have a barely-there sidekick who is repeatedly called ‘boy’.”
Another of my favorite critics, Cynthia Fuchs, says it is one more film that purports to be about racism but gives the heroics to the white man. “Racism provides the white guy with a very special growth experience.”
Slate’s Jonah Weiner took a friend who lived in South Africa to “District 9” and wrote about their reaction in the site’s Brow Beat blog:

My friend was troubled by the depiction of the stranded aliens as “shiftless” “intergalactic schlubs,” as Dan puts it. There’s something unsavory, he argued, in director Neill Blomkamp portraying his allegorical shack dwellers as dumb, hapless, and helpless members of a community so thoroughly rent by poverty and oppression that the only hope for their betterment lies either in intervention from the outside (Wikus van der Merwe) or the lone efforts of an anomalous, intellectually advanced insider (the alien called Christopher Thompson). This logic can take on an infantilizing, unempowering aspect, he said, that denies oppressed parties agency, the ability to organize effectively from the ground up.

We were both uncertain about Blomkamp’s ultimate point about miscegenation, for lack of a better word, as represented by Wikus’s gooey transformation into a prawn. Right through the film’s final image, Wikus regards his othering from himself as a horror he wants reversed–he fights the evil MNU not out of virtue but out of self-interest and, in the process, becomes a microcosmic model for any “native” body that fears “foreign” contamination. The transforming/transformed Wikus isn’t the embodiment of post-racial harmony. Rather, the metamorphosis alienates him twice over, strands him between categories that are themselves left intact: He’s not a human and he’s not a “prawn,” either.

A couple of points here. First, I have been fascinated with the intensity of debate White’s review has engendered, including more than 500 comments on Rotten Tomatoes and a sort of defense of White from Roger Ebert, who at first said White was valuable because his ideas are outside of the mainstream and then wrote a second piece saying:

I realized I had to withdraw my overall defense of White. I was not familiar enough with his work. It is baffling to me that a critic could praise “Transformers 2” but not “Synecdoche, NY.” Or “Death Race” but not “There Will be Blood.” I am forced to conclude that White is, as charged, a troll. A smart and knowing one, but a troll. My defense of his specific review of “District 9” still stands.

Like Ebert, I think the comments by White are valid, and I’d add in the assessments by DC Girl and Fuchs as well. In my view, however, the movie is not intended to be so closely aligned with the specific events or individuals affected by apartheid, either the victims or the perpetrators and it would be a mistake to try to make it that way — overly didactic and heavy-handed. As I said in my review:

The film is more clever and ambitious than that. Just as the classic original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is claimed by both the right and the left as representing their side, this is a movie that is designed to be discussed and argued over. It is those conversations about Its meaning in light of the way that struggles with the notion of “the other” can inspire both the best and the worst of what it means to be human.

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