Is District 9 racist?
District 9 kicks off with a hallucinatory spectacle. An alien spaceship hovers ominously over Johannesburg, a distant blur through the smog of the city. After three months of uncertainty, humans cut through to discover a sprawling mass of sick, malnourished aliens. The insect-like refugees are rounded up and segregated into shanty town encampments on the ground, then treated with all the prejudice that whites applied to blacks during apartheid. Director Neill Blomkamp sets up his sci-fi blockbuster as a hallucinatory, doco-styled satire on racism, but ultimately favours entertainment and action over politics and social substance. The shift in priority was a deliberate decision made by Blomkamp but it also renders the film's racial subtext worryingly ambiguous.
From the beginning, the aliens (referred to by the derogatory term 'prawns') are portrayed as a dirty, aimless mass, a primordial horde surviving in slums and scrounging through garbage. When they're not sniffing petrol, they're stealing cell phones and sneakers. Moreover, they're a leaderless mob, with their command ship having broken off and disappeared. The film's first 45 minutes sets it up so the aliens are pure Other, a cypher for all our racist libidinal projections. And it's a comfortable set up. Not only are the 'prawns' aliens in a sci-fi film but they're computer generated, detached from our usual human sympathies. A lot of time we even laugh with, rather than at, the racist comments made by interviewees. Indeed, the first act begins to resemble a racist joke: one interviewee wise cracks "they steal sneakers, then check for the brand", while interracial sex becomes a running gag. At one point, Wikus jokes about aborting some alien babies as he kills off some alien pods ('they pop like popcorn!') and callously offers a subordinate a souvenir for his first 'abortion'.*
The jokes would usually just pass as edgy satire. But somewhere down the line Blomkamp passes from straight satire into pure entertainment - and it's not clear when. D9's movement from satire to action to sentimentality creates a half formed, schizophrenic tone that ultimately fails to cohere. Ostensibly realistic with its documentary style and expert interviews, the film also employs a video game aesthetic of violence and action. Despite raising ideas of libidinal projection and our prejudiced subjective responses, it then asks us to enjoy the detached spectacle of bodies of 'bad guys' blown up and shot up. Similarly the film's satirical intent backfires in the face of its cosmic sentimentality. When Wikus tells the aliens they must relocate he advises the camera: “The prawn doesn’t understand. One has to say ‘This is our land. Please, will you go?’” The intention is a satirical reversal of the attitude of European colonisers to South Africa. But as Armond White points out, the allegory is misapplied "because the prawn, who resent their mistreatment, primarily yearn to beam up back to their Mothership." Wikus' racist statement is not only true in the context of the film, it's also in the interests of the aliens themselves. The problem is similar in the case of the 'leaderless' nature of the aliens. Although likely a satirical reference to the racist attitude that blacks are no more than uneducated and unruly workers who need white guidance, the film's narrative actually differs little from this racial subtext - the apparent leader, Christopher, needs the intervention of white guy Wikus before he can help rescue his fellow aliens. The end result is a confusion of genres that turns the film against itself. To quote White again: "Blomkamp and Jackson want it every which way:The actuality-video threat of The Blair Witch Project, unstoppable violence like ID4 plus Spielberg’s otherworldly benevolence: factitiousness, killing and cosmic agape." It doesn't work.
District 9's half formed satire is what I imagine critics thought the satire of Bruno to be: a dangerous representation of stereotypes that inadvertently supports the racist attitudes it satirises. But unlike Bruno, which takes the stereotype to the point of rupture, District 9 fails to even interrogate it. Yet the critics who were so quick to jump on Bruno for its 'gay face' have praised District 9 almost unanimously. They see no problem with the ambiguous cypher-like nature of the aliens or even the more outlandish Nigerian stereotypes, who come across as scary black voodoo gangster figures who wish to steal our jouissance (the alien powers). Indeed, all the characters of District 9 are little more than cartoon caricatures, with the film's main protagonist the most one dimensional of them all. It's hard to see Wikus as anything more than a satirical punching bag yet the film urges us to invest in a completely unbelievable romantic relationship between him and his wife. Not only are we supposed to accept him as a real and complex character but we're asked to sympathise with him to the point of offensiveness. Wikus himself is a racist, but his racism is 'endearingly' portrayed by the film as self-centred stupidity. His sudden 'selfless' shift in the final act appears not only arbitrary and against character but a desperate manipulative bid by the filmmakers to win audience sympathy. Moreover, the film seeks to show him in a positive light by contrasting Wikus' pathologised and bureaucratised racism to the 'real racism' of the hardcore corporate/military elite. Personally, I prefer the hardcore racists - at least they're honest (and coherent).
The film's only real attempt to get behind the alien stereotype focuses on two characters: Christopher and his son. But the way it tries to reveal their 'human' side is through a patronising sentimentality that borders on insult. Exploiting a soppy soundtrack and a cute Ewok-like baby, the film bluntly tries to elicit pity for the two aliens despite a distinct lack of character development. Rather than putting the aliens on an equal level of respect and sympathy, this 'compassionate voyeurism' keeps them at a condescending distance. In its own ignorance, the film thus establishes a link between compassion and cruelty. Both compassion and cruelty treat their object with condescension and ensure their subject's superiority as the one giving compassion or perpetrating cruelty. The effect is borderline sadistic. While the film publicly expresses its sympathy, the viewer can secretly continue projecting the same libidinal fears because the film's sympathy is so detached. District 9 sets up a system of cruelty that it supposedly critiques but its patronising solution is disturbingly similar to that same position of cruelty.
What may have begun as a genuine attempt to reveal the hallucinatory object of racism, ends up merely confirming the racist attitude as the film's ideal vantage point. District 9 has promising ideas - the horrific metamorphosis as a radical turn to empathy - but they fail to be exploited and serve mainly to aid the film's video game aesthetic. Ultimately the film's satirical and sentimental detachment works merely to let the viewer off the hook. The enjoyment of the film's narrative and the dictates of its genre are however completely dependent on the racist stereotype it satirises.
*The main protagonist's surname 'van der Merwe' is also a common name used in Afrikaans jokes.
Mike Ely at Kasama contextualises D9's racism brilliantly:
There is an English-speaking liberalism in South Africa that sees itself as very enlightened and even “anti-racist.” It views the Boers (South African whites speaking a Dutch dialect) as racist cavemen — as the authors of the horrors of apartheid. And yet this same Anglo-liberalism is notorious for its own deeply embedded sense of white superiority, and its own “civilizing” mission. There is a patronizing white racism that self-righteously poses as support for a particularly non-radical kind of “multiculturalism” in South Africa.
This film struck me as a very coherent expression of that Anglo-liberalism in South Africa — with its vague support for tolerance, and its deeply flawed view of the real horrors of sub-Saharan Africa today. In other words, this was not a racist portrayal of Nigerians somehow “plopped down” into a wholly different plotline — the racist view of subsaharan Blacks is part and parcel of a particular critique of apartheid and “the Boers.”
The racism as portrayed in D9 is a view of racism as the product of ignorance. Although an outdated view, it is actually perfectly conducive to view of liberal multiculturalists. Under the liberal viewpoint, Wikus is a racist because he's stupid and doesn't know better. Yet this same viewpoint engages in a more complex and fetishistic disavowal of racism. Instead of 'my culture is better than yours', reflexive racism argues 'your culture is different to mine'. This idea of 'tolerance' allows us to publicly believe that all cultures are equal, but still act as if ours was superior. The way the film then excuses its seemingly derogatory portrayal of voodoo loving Nigerians is that it's out of respect for the uniqueness of their culture - that they enjoy differently. Indeed, the film's portrayal of Nigerians sways between the reflexive and classic racist fantasy: the ethnic Other has access to a jouissance that is strange to us (the voodoo); and that they want to steal our enjoyment from us (the alien blood from Wikus' transformed hand). What both fantasies share is a 'threat' that comes from 'them'.
And yet D9 does (if not self-consciously) show a more complex push-pull in its racist subtext by portraying capital and globalisation as also a threat (the MNU corporation). The strengthening of ethnic identities (the Nigerians) can be seen as a reactionary defense against the spread of capitalism and its Western forms of enjoyment (MNU). But what are the 'prawns' in this context? Zizek offers a clue when he outlines the underlying fantasy of all racism as being "if only they weren't here, life would be perfect, and society will be haromious again". What the prawns represent is this hallucinatory figure of racism. In a sense (the film falls short of entirely exploiting this), the prawns are not blacks so much as they are the racist embodiment of blacks - a fantasy figure whose erasure will lead to an organic, whole society (much like the Nazi's view of the Jews). Yet instead of exposing the racist fantasy - that the subject of racism isn't an obstacle to a harmonious society but actually conceals its impossibility - District 9 seems to actually endorse it. The public fantasy of having the aliens 'get off our land' becomes the private fantasy of the aliens themselves. The spectre of a harmonious society hovers over the film like the alien mothership - one that can only be realised once the aliens leave the earth.