‘District 9’ Attacks Racist Apartheid But Offers No Solution

Sometimes in order to get a story about the horrors of racism and capitalism through the gauntlet of financiers and studio execs in Hollywood you have to add… ALIENS. In the movie District 9 an alien ship stops above Johannesburg, South Africa with nearly a million alien inhabitants in a state of starvation inside. Feeling pressure from the international community the South African government relocates the aliens to a camp on the edge of the city, District 9. The film takes place twenty years after the ship’s arrival. The film’s location in South Africa is no accident as it is meant to conjure images of the Apartheid system that ruled there for nearly fifty years.

District 9, like the areas most black South Africans’ lived in under apartheid, is a fenced-in slum with densely-packed shacks housing almost two million aliens living in a constant state of poverty and starvation. The aliens are blamed for the conditions of the slum they are forced to live in despite the fact that the conditions were created by denying them food and other resources. The local population, fully indoctrinated with this racism,
vigorously calls for the aliens to be removed to camps outside of the city.

The film is shot in a documentary-style fashion using commentary from people’s reactions to living in the city as the story unfurls. The comments about the aliens in the film are from real life interviews the director conducted with people from Johannesburg about the influx of immigrants mainly from Zimbabwe and Nigeria into the city.

The fighting between the humans and aliens reached the point where the government decides to relocate the aliens outside the city, District 10. They contracted out the removal of the aliens to a private enterprise called Multi-National United (MNU) that uses private and government security forces to control the aliens.

While most of the MNU and security forces are white it is interesting to see black members of the population in the crowd call for the alien deportations. Showing the negative results of life without communist politics, these black residents call for the removal of aliens to concentration camps not unlike those they were subjected to two decades prior under apartheid.

The class and race dimensions of the movie are made clear very early as the aliens’ “stupidity” is explained by academics and journalists who state that they must be the workers of the civilization since they are so loathsome. The workers at MNU regularly refer to the aliens as “prawns” which is the racist term devised for them. The aliens are given slave names like Christopher Johnson, names that with their vocal capabilities they can’t even pronounce; they are branded and rigorously catalogued.

The film’s human protagonist is the weak- minded Wikus who works in the alien and human affairs department of MNU. While engaging in a brutal forced eviction campaign in District 9 he meets an alien Christopher Johnson who questions the legality of the evictions, Wikus raids his house and exposes himself to alien technology that begins slowly turning him into a “prawn.” Representing the capitalist class as the human Wikus, his primary characteristics are cowardice and duplicity. He repeatedly makes his situation, and that of the aliens around him, worse by abandoning them in cowardly attempts to save himself. Only as he begins to fully change into an alien can he summon the courage to help the aliens in their fight against MNU.

MNU, who regularly brutalize the alien inhabitants and raid their homes looking for weapons, know of the Nigerians, gangsters living in the slums,  and their illegal activities, but allow them to exist as another method of terrorizing and controlling the population. Just like in the real world, gangsters only exist because of the racism and violence of capitalism and they flourish with the tacit consent of the capitalist class.

The contrast between the Nigerians and MNU in the film is interesting. The gangsters’ belief in witchcraft and their leader’s desire to consume alien flesh elicit an instant, strong response from the audience. “Who are these monsters?” one wonders. Yet when MNU agents engage in the regular policy of
dispatching alien babies with flame throwers (joking that they pop like popcorn), dissect mass numbers of aliens for medical experiments (in a crazed attempt to locate the source of their “power, á la the Nazis), or regularly gun down aliens in the street for fun it elicits a different response since they do it while wearing business suits or crisp white
uniforms. The film plays on how we have been taught to abhor the violence of petty gangsters while ignoring state-sanctioned genocide caused by the capitalist class.

By the end of the film you are ready to cheer as alien weaponry turns MNU agents and gangsters into clouds of red dust and goo. The film’s strong imagery leaves one feeling both disturbed and unsure about the future. There is no quick, easy victory. The film ends in a state of uncertainty and while the lesson is clear that demonization of the “other” caused by capitalist racism leads to genocidal violence, how do we escape this grim reality? There is one lesson that no Hollywood film is allowed to teach. If we want to end racism and the capitalist violence it excuses, then workers have to smash the whole system through communist revolution.

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