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District 9 isn’t racist, but I am

District 9 has done something that few films this summer have accomplished, made people talk about the ideas it represents.  We aren’t talking about giant robot testicles, Arnie’s brief cameo, or how much it sucked in general.  The vigorous debates and conversations surrounding the film are on the thoughts behind it.  I was gonna write about some of the technical aspects in the film, the impressive acting feat, and the seamless integration of CGI.  Instead, the internet (the always accurate pulse of the real world) is becoming mired in the debate “is District 9 racist?”  The answer is simple: no, but I am.

The argument exploded due to a blog post (on this very same gracious host) over at Pageslap (recently taken down, but a recap is over at io9).  The gist of the argument isn’t the aliens being showcased as trash scrounging, property destroying, leaderless idiots, but the portrayal of the Nigerians.  In District 9, the Nigerians—the only black Africans in the film—are portrayed as scum.  They are interspecies prostitutes, vicious gangsters, and into voodoo.  On first glance, all these aspects are pretty damning.  District 9 may not be intentionally or knowingly racist, but the underlying stereotypes that everyone harbors led to the gross portrayal of Nigerians in the film.  A valid and disturbing point, with one exception, the barely seen MNU CEO, why are the only black characters so far from normal?

District 9 tells its story in two parts, a documentary from the human perspective about the aliens, and a cinèma-vèritè style traditional narrative.  The two are seamlessly woven together, with intercutting between the documentary interviews and the traditional narrative consistent throughout.  Like Troubled Water, where the parallel timelines show events from differing perspective, the two narrative threads in District 9 gives us completely different views of the events.  In Troubled Water, the differing perspectives help us in the emotional third act of the film.  Contrast that with District 9, where the documentary and traditional narrative clearly clash with each other. The documentary comes across as an unreliable narrator.  Any information gleaned from the talking heads has to be fact checked.  The aliens are idiots without their leaders?  The main alien, Christopher Johnson, quickly disproves this idea.  MNU is acting in the best interest of humanity and the aliens?  Also disproved as the film goes on.

The documentary segments provide us with most of the information about the Nigerians: they’re scammers, gun dealers, voodoo practitioners, and prostitutes.  We don’t see any footage of the interspecies sex—except one doctored picture of the main human, Wickus van der Merwe (a derogatory South African term equivalent to our “redneck”)—or any concrete proof of the Nigerian scams.  The documentary showcases the Nigerians as the scum of the Earth.  Kevin Smith famously (or un-famously if you aren’t a Kevin Smith fan) answered a question from an upset fan about derogatory remarks on gays and lesbians in Chasing Amy: “We have the idiot character . . . say that, hence deflating the argument.”  It’s an old tactic in the arts, presenting information from an unreliable source so you can knock it down later.  It’s a subtle form of attack, keeping the story away from a heavy-handed, preachy attitude.  By having the documentary make outlandish claims – from the Nigerian’s behavior to the aliens lack of structure – Blomkamp and writer Terri Tatchell set up a universe we, the audience, initially accept so when we learn about the complexities of the situation we’re as confused and annoyed as Wikus van der Merwe.

Some elements of the Nigerians are portrayed in the traditional narrative, a better area to base our information, the weapons deals and the voodoo practice.  The alien weaponry, incredibly more powerful than human weapons, only works for aliens.  They have the perfect safety device—DNA.  The Nigerians believe that by eating the aliens, they’ll absorb the alien DNA.  Similar to how MNU scientists, the massive Blackwater-esque mercenaries, harvest alien organs to allow their soldiers to operate the alien weaponry.  All the humans—from the massive corporation to the Nigerian gang—are after the same thing, and using the same tactics: weapons by becoming aliens.  MNU has no moral qualms killing Wikus to harvest his organs when they’ve become half-alien and half-human.  The Nigerians have no moral qualms sacrificing Wikus to eat his alien hand to crack the safety device.  The Nigerians and the MNU officials share the same goal, with hauntingly similar tactics.  There is nothing civilized about pursuing the weapons technology in District 9, either way it’s horribly barbaric.

Neil Blomkamp is aware of the racist undertones, seemingly unchecked, in the documentary section.  In Alive in Joburg, Blomkamp’s short film that inspired District 9, the layperson-on-the-street gives interviews expressing their wishes that the aliens would just leave and get out (similar to District 9’s interviews).  The lines are not delivered by professional or community theater actors, but real people answering questions about Nigerian and Zimbabweans emigrating to South Africa.  District 9 addresses not only apartheid but the unseen element of racism as well: stereotypes.  When I sat in on interviews for Resident Assistant candidates at Central Michigan University we’d ask: “What prejudices do you have?”  The most common answer – as in 99 out of 100 – was “I don’t have any.”  Bullshit.  We all have them.  We all struggle with them, usually unconsciously, and think we’re enlightened.  District 9 subtly points out we all have them, and that racism exists in an institutional setting.  It is more than people running around in white robes.  Everyone hates someone, including me (not to brag but I was one the 1 out of 100, and got the job because of my answer).  It takes a lot of courage to admit you have an unfounded issue with a group of people, and admit to a real problem unlike “I hate dumb people.” (I do too, but that’s not my real prejudices).

District 9 isn’t a perfect film.  It has trouble deciding if it wants to be a sci-fi action flick or a social commentary, and fails at meshing both of them leading to a messy third act.  But the acting—all improvised by the actors, including the first-timer lead Sharlto Copley—and Blomkamp’s seamless integration of the CGI elements lend to a natural feel that hits the social message home.  District 9 is smart sci-fi.  In a summer filled with Terminators and Transformers, the film is a welcome departure from what is becoming the big box office norm.

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