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Saturday, April 3, 2010

Allegory in "District 9"

Saw District 9 for the first time last night. It seemed obviously allegorical, so I spent the first half of the movie trying to figure out exactly what it was trying to say. The easy conclusion -- which most reviewers jumped to -- is that since it takes place in South Africa, and "District 9" is an obvious reference to "District 6," a former Soweto encampment, the segregated camp the aliens are interned in must also represent Soweto. And therefore the movie is a political statement about the injustices of the old apartheid system.

I'm not so sure about this, especially after having read a bit about the director afterward.

Neill Blomkamp is originally from South African, so it was just natural that he would set his movie there. When Americans think of South Africa, they think of apartheid; when Blomkamp thinks of it, he just thinks of home. Also, it turns out his family fled the country for Canada in 1997, when he was 17, because of the rising violence. This would certainly have given Blomkamp a more nuanced, realistic view of the country than the typical American gets.

Blomkamp didn't try to make the aliens cute or appealing in the usual ways. Usually when Hollywood wants you to like an alien creature, they anthropomorphize it. The Na'vi from Avatar, for instance, look like tall, slightly feline humans -- except they're better-looking. The aliens in District 9 (see picture above) looked like the monster from Predator. The disparaging term the humans in the movie used for them was "prawns," a reference not to shrimp but to the "Parktown prawn," a species of king cricket considered a huge pest in South Africa.

The aliens' initial behavior is equally repulsive. They fight with each other. They eat unappetizing things (including tins of cat food, which they ingest by putting the containers right into their drooling mouths). The urinate in public. And their voices are extremely harsh and inhuman. None of these actions evoke sympathy.

Yet another strike against the apartheid analogy was that there were as many blacks as whites speaking out in a "prejudiced" way about the aliens. And the casting of this interracial movie didn't follow the usual Hollywood pattern of noble-black-man-saves-the-world-from-evil-whites. The two white villains were the evil father-in-law of the protagonist and a particularly bloodthirsty soldier. But they were balanced by the protagonist, a sympathetic (if somewhat unheroic) white man. There was a black villain as well, the paralyzed Nigerian gang leader who wants to cannibalize the mutated arm of the protagonist in order to obtain alien powers, or ju-ju. (Not the usual Denzel Washington or Will Smith role.) The normal Hollywood math would have required him to be balanced by at least one sympathetic black character, but he wasn't.

(The gang leader is named Obesandjo, which sounds very much like Obasanjo, the recent leader of Nigeria; the film was banned in Nigeria.)

All of this doesn't make it seem as if the aim of the movie was to arouse sympathy for the poor oppressed victims of segregation. Or put it this way: if Blomkamp was trying to deliver an political message, he was doing so with unHollywood-like subtlety.

Eventually, though, we do see an alien with affection for his son, who bears an uncanny resemblance to ET. (If ET grows up to be Predator, then maybe all those government agents were right to try to capture ET so many years ago.)

Finally, the interned aliens -- or at least one alien -- turns out to be more intelligent than the humans, and more technologically advanced. (Does this not stretch the apartheid analogy even further?) This intelligent alien has reassembled stolen computer parts inside his squalid shack in a way that no tenement-dwelling human ever has.

Finally, the white protagonist, a la Avatar, sides with the aliens against the humans. Yet while the Na'vi in Avatar obviously represented Native Americans, the aliens in District 9 seem to represent, well, aliens.

Blomkamp's sympathies are far more complicated than the American reviewing class would have you believe, and that is abundantly apparent if you view the movie with an open mind.

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