District 9: Still Rockin' the Box Office!

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Weeks after its release, District 9, the blockbuster film by South African director Neill Blomkamp, is still creating a furor: number one in Britain and banned in Nigeria!

The film tells the story of one million aliens inexplicitly left stranded in South Africa. South African authorities set aside a barren township for the aliens called District 9. After 20 years the initially altruistic relations become strained as South Africans, Black and White, express frustration with the aliens. The film begins with the decision by authorities to move the aliens to District 10, a new area further away from contact and view of their human hosts.

Panned by some reviewers as nothing more than the traditional high tech shoot-um-up, sci-fi thriller, the film is a serious allegory that targets the racial and xenophobic tensions unfolding in today’s South Africa. But the allegory does not only apply to South Africa, the film also provides Americans and other Westerners an opportunity to examine their own racism and anti-immigrant policies.

For South Africans the film builds upon the violent and oppressive history of racial separation, known as apartheid. In fact, District 9 uses many of apartheid’s laws and tactics: forced removals, segregated impoverished townships, laws limiting freedom of movement, requirements that aliens carry identification (passbooks) and restrictions on contact between the races. The film applies all the stereotypes associated with South Africa – the aliens (read ‘native,’Black, or Indian) are stupid, prolific breeders, and violence prone. The film uses these images, but builds upon them as well, leaving no racial group or nationality untouched. South Africa’s Afrikaaners are portrayed as brutal authoritarians, or stupid bumpkins. South Africa’s English speakers are interviewed from the ivory towers of academia. And Nigerians, not surprisingly, Blomkamp portrays as gangsters supreme, violent, treacherous, blindly supernatural, and cannibalistic to boot!

While Blomkamp uses a strong satirical approach to race relations and his own nation’s treatment of immigrants, the film is unable to break free of the traditional racial hierarchy. And this is where District 9 fails. Whites are still both masters, and no matter how reluctantly, are the final heroes. This weakness, along with the sharp use of stereotypes has led some to call the film racist.

Nonetheless, the film is entertaining and thought provoking. Science fiction fans still await a film that truly breaks free of racial boundaries in the way of Octavia Butler’s trail blazing work, but it looks like we will need to wait a bit longer.

Still, if you haven’t seen the film, you should. If you have seen it, what do you think of it? Let me know.

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