Slumdog extraterrestrial

August 25, 2009

Warning: This letter contains spoilers for the film District 9.

JOE ALLEN is right that sci-fi is a genre well suited for allegory, but he seems to miss some of the point of District 9's parable about the current world ("Soweto for space aliens").

First-time filmmaker Neil Blomkamp purposefully avoided drawing too many explicit references to South Africa, past or present. The movie arose out of a short film made in 1990 (Alive in Joburg, available online) as a critique of the township system that existed under apartheid, and was further influenced by the modern strife between Black South Africans and Zimbabwean refugees (who were massacred during the filming of the movie).

The lack of apartheid in modern South Africa hardly makes "you never feel like you're watching a film about the wider world"; the critique of the brutality meted out to the displaced poor and refugees is relevant to Gaza, Lagos or anywhere as nearly 2 billion people globally are crowded into shantytowns and slums. The movie is Alien Nation meets Planet of the Slums.

Blomkamp uses a very common device by having a member of the oppressor group have to live among the oppressed, and suffer their fate to achieve any sense of solidarity. Wikus' fate is tied up in the success of his alien "buddy" Christopher Johnson (a throw-away reference to the history of forcing name changes on slaves and new immigrants) getting the alien craft running and returning to their home world.

One of the more provocative elements of the movie is whether Wikus is sincerely interested in what Christopher is trying to do--free his people after witnessing Nazi-like genetic experiments--or is he just concerned about getting his old body back, and whether or not it matters. At this point, it is obvious that the fates of the two are inextricably tied, which is often the point of such parables.

It is true what Joe says about the Nigerians being portrayed as soulless and one dimensional. But watching the “Multi-National United” (MNU) brass discuss whether to "harvest" Wikus while be begs for his life doesn't make them any more human; instead they seem to be two versions of the same evil, willing to profit on the suffering of the weak. Both the gang and the MNU militia exist primarily to blow up in interesting ways.

At the end of the day, the only character who does anything in Wikus' defense is his black coworker, who winds up behind bars for investigating the genetics project.

Overall the movie is shaped by a guilty white liberal perspective--that does view agency as residing in white hands (white corporate murderers, white liberals bemoaning their own powerlessness)--of how the historic oppressors of South Africa will, or won't, achieve redemption.

This may be viewed as a political flaw, but the movie should very much, as Joe says, be watched and argued over.
Amy Muldoon, New York City

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