I went to the theatre without any expectations and still left disappointed. The film District 9 is a Peter Jackson production, directed by Neil Blomkamp and written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell. As per usual, the reviews are raving and I’m left wondering why.
The film purports to examine the events surrounding the forced removal of the residents of a slum of Johannesburg known as District Six. Flip the number on its head and you get the film’s title, District 9. How clever. Yet instead of humans—immigrants and ex-slaves brought by the Dutch to South Africa—the residents of the fictitious District 9 are aliens. It’s a noble cause—challenging stereotypes and confronting the harsh reality of apartheid. Unfortunately, the message does not translate well within this genre. The movie itself feels more like an action-packed video game, complete with excessive violence and some cool laser guns. Not that there is anything implicitly wrong with this type of film—one that could easily have been plucked from the era of hyper-masculine 80s Hollywood. In an August 14, 2009 interview with Bill Desowitz from Animation World Network, Blomkamp even sites “all the 80s hardcore, sci-fi/action films” as influences—movies such as the first two Aliens, the Terminator series, Predator, and Robocop. He goes on to say that he “wanted [District 9] to have that harsh 1980s kind of vibe” and the he “didn’t want it to feel glossy and slick.” In respect to this goal, he was successful.
The problem is the way the aliens themselves are portrayed. For a film that seeks to confront racist stereotypes, it represents the aliens as blood-sucking trash pickers with filthy habits and barely an ounce of intelligence. There are only two alien characters that we get to know more intimately throughout the film—a father and a son—who become the reason why we feel any compassion towards the aliens. Nevertheless, the film left me with the impression that most of the residents of District 9 were not as intelligent or as multidimensional as our lead alien. Despite rich political and artistic contributions to South African culture from the residents of District Six, many of even the indigenous African residents of District 9 are portrayed as one-dimensional gangsters. In the same interview from Animation World Network, Blomkamp fills-in the gaps of the alien back-story: “To me there’s this kind of ant hive that’s had a queen that’s died and they’re these directionless drones walking around.” In essence, this is his explanation as to why the aliens have access to sophisticated technology that they are incapable of using against the humans. For a film that markets itself as masked political commentary on the racist, xenophobic events surrounding District Six, it does little to provide an empowering message and fails to give voice to the oppressed.
In an interview with the director in New York magazine from August 2, 2009, Will Leitch asks Blomkamp whether he is worried that “an action movie with explosions and cool robots might trivialize the issue?” Blomkamp, after acknowledging that the film is certainly about issues that he grew up with in South Africa, i.e. segregation and xenophobia, responds, “I’m proud of the fact that we deal with those issues without beating you over the head with it.” Perhaps that’s the point. As a South African from Johannesburg, such issues are evidently ingrained in his psyche and, in turn, contribute to his worldview. In relation to the greater canon of work that has come both out of and about District Six—contributions to literature and jazz from Alex La Guma and Abdullah Ibrahim—its fictional counterpart does not do it justice. Yet perhaps Blomkamp was merely making a film in his preferred genre. Moreover, he happens to be a director from Johannesburg with a particular consciousness of issues such as xenophobia, racism, and segregation. Unfortunately, these issues are extremely sensitive and difficult to process, and, in turn, Blomkamp did a terrible job of exploring them in his film. If I were the Action Movie loving type, I’m sure I would have appreciated the 80s throw-back that is District 9. But as someone with a social conscious, this film is hard to swallow.
For another take on District 9 see JK Fowler's article, District 6 in District 9: The Metaphoric Menagerie