Twenty-nine years ago, famed South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela released a double-sided LP, which included one of his classic songs “District 6.” Is it then a coincidence that in 2009, South-African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp released the blockbuster feature “District 9”? Based on Blomkamp’s earlier short film titled “Alive in Joburg", which acts as an allegory of “blecks” and “vites” struggling to co-habit, this sci-fi film feature film, produced by none other than Peter Jackson (of the legendary Lord of the Rings film series) portrays the turbulent dual-existence of aliens and humans in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The film jumps off mockumentary style, with snippets of interviews of South African citizens (black and white), talking heads and employees of the fictional corporation Multinational United, better known as MNU. Immediately, the audience is drawn into the film’s back-story, in which some decades ago a rogue spaceship descended upon and remained hovering above Johannesburg. After much international pressure, anxiety and speculation, the South African government finally decided to move in on the massive unidentified floating object. Inside they discovered a batch of anthropomorphic aliens who seemed disoriented, enslaved and malnourished. Hence a refugee camp for the aliens was constructed in Johannesburg, aptly referred to as District 9, where the aliens are grounded and contained.
It is no coincidence that the aliens were placed in the predominantly Black (73%) city of Johannesburg, that cradles a rife history of intimate memories of Apartheid – most notably and undeniably, the Soweto Uprisings of 1976. Although the aliens in District 9 have two arms, two legs and one head, they are deemed to resemble shellfish, and thus given the derogatory soubriquet “prawns.” And so the story unfolds, as the Blacks and the prawns live in close proximity – somewhat separate, certainly not equal – the South African government and more precisely MNU explore their own secret reasons for keeping the aliens around. Akin to another Steven Spielberg extraterrestrial icon - although not nearly as cute - these aliens simply want to “go home.”
As the story develops, other characters, or better yet cultural representatives come into the foreground. Of course, there is the "Great White Hope," the main character of the film, who at first works for MNU delivering eviction notices with ironic indifference to the alien residents of the refugee camp, and over time is forced to see things from a different perspective. Then there are his staff and subordinates, mostly Black, who don’t do much but serve as comic relief mixed with the fear and vulnerability of entering the camps. More importantly, are the military and ruthless corporate guys, whose single-minded mission is to gain from or destroy the aliens and their superior technology. It is no coincidence that Nigerians make more than a cameo in the film, as the bloodhounds who do criminal business with and even live amongst the aliens in the township-camp. Much controversy has been made about the depiction of Nigerians in District 9, which some, including the Nigerian government, view as a negative portrayal. In this way we are reminded that this is still a Hollywood film (note: Peter Jackson also directed the remake of “King Kong”, one of Hollywoods most overtly racist films that somehow remained “timeless”). Last but not least are the “prawns” themselves, who, aside from the click-clucking vernacular of their native language (translated into English subtitles in the film), have no real cultural reference, thus marking them truly alien, indeed.
One of the most insightful and entertaining elements of the film occurs outside of the theater. As part of its long-sweeping marketing campaign, the creators of District 9 have compiled a series of websites and other interactive attractions that give the film an even more poignant touch of reality. For starts, there is the MNU official website, in which visitors are segregated and thereafter directed by human and non-human identification. Then there is my personal favorite, the blog of Christopher Johnson, the film’s principal alien character, in which he denounces the social oppression (and experimentation) that MNU conducts on the aliens, and rallies for solidarity, under the banner “Everyone Deserves Equality.” Christopher’s blog is replete with a circulating Non-Human Rights petition signed by 13, 611 supporters…make that 13,612 – I just signed! This alien blogger also has a facebook account and even tweets! Alas, he truly is just like one of us!
While innovative in both concept and design (the special effects are quite remarkable) the film quickly turns from social commentary (as most good science fiction films are and should be) to a customary action flick. Commentators who still view racism and xenophobia as the same have been quick to call the film trite, obvious, and pseudo-intellectual. And certainly while typically standard racist tropes of Hollywood remain, much to the chagrin of the Nigerian government and others, the treatment of xenophobia, particularly in a country such as South Africa which not only has its history of apartheid, but even more recently, of intra-African xenophobic violence as witnessed in 2008, is novel enough in a big-budget sci-fi film to deserve some attention and applause. Rumors are already afloat of a sequel “District 10”. They’re baaaaaaack……?