I’m not much of an action-movie type of person. Only one action movie makes my top 10 favorite movie list–which includes classics like Titanic, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Fried Green Tomatoes–that movie, by the way, is Die Hard: With a Vengeance. Two if you count The Mummy.
District 9 will not be making my Top 10 list. But I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not for the tongue-in-cheek humor (lame) or acting (what acting?) or special-effects (awesome, actually) but for it’s thought-provoking allegory to South African Apartheid.
SEMI-SPOILER ALERT: In fact, the sole thing that drove me to want to see the movie in the first place was the snippet in the trailer when the alien says, “We just want to go home.” I knew then that this wasn’t just any action or sci-fi movie. For once, the scenario was different. It wasn’t the typical cliché where aliens are enemies who’ve come to destroy Earth, nor was it the case where aliens are friendly and everyone gets along just peachy keen. District 9 portrays a scenario in which the role of threat and threatened are reversed. It is the aliens who are at the mercy of humans.
I’m not going to give it all away, but I will say that District 9′s placement in South Africa just after the end of Apartheid is no coincidence. The systematic segregation, discrimination, and abuse of the alien creatures at the hands of a tyrannical human government is not so dissimilar to the treatment of blacks by whites during Apartheid. And in the case of District 9, it is mostly black South Africans, ironically, who push for the mistreatment of the aliens.
In the arts, we are often restricted to how we represent racism because race and racism are perceivable to us–we can see them, hear them, feel them in our everyday lives. Thus, it becomes hard to create allegories of racism without using other forms of racism or prejudice and without using humans as actors (which creates sub-context as our races and characteristics are perceivable). This movie steps back and represents racism and prejudice without using humans as actors. And as a result, posits the future possibility of discrimination and exploitation. We know how we have erred in the past, but how will we err when we are faced with other species of life?–should we ever encounter them.
This scenario represents, in my mind, a very accurate depiction of what would happen if aliens came to Earth, whether by accident or on purpose, and had no way to defend themselves or leave. Humans would, almost certainly, exploit aliens in any way possible. In the name of science. In the name of defense. In the name of religion. And the film was effective in getting the audience to sympathize with this race of aliens.
But we don’t have to look to a film to see this. All one needs do is look at any impoverished or war-torn nation. Search long enough and one will find the people who got rich–and continue to get rich–at the nation’s expense. “Concentration camps” still exist and will, as District 9 suggests, continue to.
Do not expect a satisfying, closed-book ending from this movie–I fully anticipate a sequel. And how then will the story change?