By Thaithao Nguyen

 

The idea of Africa as a Dark Continent originates from Eurocentric views of Africa as a place of mystery. Present understandings of Africa are shrouded in many of the same, lingering misconceptions. In 2009, the movie District 9 by Neill Blompkamp appeared in theaters worldwide.[1] To the naked eye, it was another alien science fiction film, this time set in Johannesburg, South Africa. The film unfolded from the perspective of protagonist Wikus van de Merwe, the white Dutch South African charged with heading the relocation of the aliens and the man whose entire life changed when he was exposed to a foreign substance that began his painful transformation from man to alien. Using Curtis A. Keim’s analysis of “The White Man’s Burden” in Mistaking Africa, this review demonstrates striking similarities between the images and roles of humanity present in District 9 and the themes within Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem. Both the movie and Keim’s literary analysis highlight enduring themes about Africa including, the idea of paternalism embodied in the white protagonist, the use of foreign aid in the form of private security intervention, and the depiction of black African characters in stereotypical, static roles.

The director Blomkamp incorporated his childhood and lived experiences as a white South African during apartheid into District 9. The central theme of the film revolves around South Africa’s apartheid, a policy of segregation based upon racial discrimination in place from 1948 – 1994. The film’s beginning is set in 1982, when an alien ship stopped mid-air over Johannesburg. A piece of the ship fell to earth and an excavation of this fallen part revealed a population of malnourished and sick aliens. At first, the people of Johannesburg pitied the expiring aliens and allowed them to live alongside humans. As tensions heightened over sparse resources, the government resolved to confine the aliens to District 9, an allegory to the township created for black South Africans removed from District 6 that chronologically existed until just before the aliens arrived.[2] The film is the director’s testament to the harsh treatment of black South Africans by the South African government and their second-class status as imposed by the legacy of apartheid.[3]

The protagonist Wickus, in charge of relocating aliens from District 9, utilizes his position of power through paternalistic rhetoric and compulsory abortion. For instance, at the beginning of the film, Wikus revealed the meaning of prawn, a derogatory nickname that humans adopted for the alien race and that stemmed from their physical similarities to the aquatic crustaceans.[4] He discussed this in the same breath that justified the forced relocation of the aliens from District 9 to District 10 with his statement that the aliens did not “understand the concept of ownership of property” and, as such, humanity was ethically obligated to act on their behalf.[5] This explanation lends itself to Keim’s analysis of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden.” In it, Keim points out that Kipling appeals to “the best ye breed” (originally, this meant elite white men) to act as saviors for their inferior counterpart, “half-devil and half-child.”[6] This caretaker mentality in the movie resulted in a parental style of governance, with the blame for the failure of District 9 squarely placed (ironically) upon the state-dependent aliens. Jack Darcy’s 2010 movie review lends further evidence to the reading of humanity-as-savior role when he highlights the dialogue between Wikus and the residents of District 9.[7] Case in point, Wikus brought two black assistants when he began his relocation operation: a civilian and another person armed in black military gear. When Wikus unexpectedly uncovered a breeding operation, he immediately performed multiple abortions in seconds to showcase his superiority over the extraterrestrial race.[8]

Further embodying his character’s position in what Darcy termed the “colonial dialogue” between humanity and the alien race (and between white South Africans and black South Africans), Wikus didn’t think twice about the act of exerting reproductive control. He brandished the nutrient tube he forcibly removed from the alien birth sacs and then offered it as a souvenir to one of the black assistants (who tellingly accepted the gift with a “yes, boss”). Though Wikus’ explicit job was to get the aliens to sign release forms to move out of District 9, he took it upon himself to extend his authority to control their lives and reproductive abilities. His disregard for alien life is the epitome of the parental style of control as explained in Kipling’s poem. In this film, Wikus wielded substantial power over alien life and justified his actions as beneficial to the alien population. This paternalistic, top-down approach was not just enacted by the protagonist, but was the philosophy of the entire private security intervention company Wikus worked for, Multi-National United (MNU).

In the film MNU is a private security firm that hides its capitalistic motives behind a fake façade of foreign aid. When Johannesburg erupted in riots over the aliens’ extended stay and perceived freeloading, the government responded by hiring MNU with the mission of creating and then maintaining peace and stability through the efficient and effective relocation of the aliens. In Mistaking Africa, Keim argues that military intervention in African affairs increases domestic oppression, a claim very much true in the fiction of District 9.[9] In the film, MNU was a weapon developer that employed lethal force and military intervention in unpublicized ways as their primary means of persuasion, allowing the South African government to keep their hands clean. True to form, to serve eviction notices, MNU deployed troops on the ground in District 9 in full riot gear as snipers flew in Tomahawks overhead and armored tanks invaded. At the twenty-two-minute mark, Wikus served an eviction notice to an alien on their knees at MNU gunpoint; the message was clear – the aliens had to move or they faced death.[10]

This form of coercive persuasion is also discussed by Keith Wagner in his 2015 Race & Class article “District 9, Race and Neoliberalism in Post-apartheid Johannesburg.” Here, Wagner talks about existing governments that have delegated their security to private entities and covered how these companies, in turn, ultimately exploited their power for financial gain.[11] He drew comparisons between MNU and the real life private contractor Blackwater. In 2007, the military mercenary group operated in Iraq under a contract with the Pentagon to train local forces. Four Blackwater agents open fired at Baghdad’s Nisour Square, killing 17 unarmed civilians. Despite public disapproval of their brutal tactics, Blackwater was awarded another contract to operate in Afghanistan in 2014. Wagner’s argument was furthered when Wikus, then biologically 50% human and 50% alien, lay bound on the table as MNU directors discussed the fact that at this stage he was “billions of dollars’ worth of biotechnology.”[12] After his escape, a professor reflected that Wikus’ entire value was based on the fact that he was “the only human who had successfully fused with alien genetics and remained alive,” which provided the potential key to unlocking alien weaponry that MNU had been so concerned with.[13] This focus on understanding alien bodies as a pathway to utilizing their weaponry explained why, after Wikus and (temporary-ally and alien resident of District 9) Christopher infiltrated MNU headquarters, they discovered a mountain of concrete evidence of alien bodies being used as testing subjects.[14] Illegal experimentation on other living beings, including the relentless pursuit of man-alien hybrid Wikus that occupied the rest of the film made apparent MNU’s underlying priorities – not the interests of the aliens nor those of the country of South Africa, but those of their own financial profit.

In addition to District 9’s critical analysis of the paternalistic protagonist and destructive foreign aid is its reinforcement of negative stereotypes of African characters, specifically Nigerians. Keim argues that one of the ways we learn about and understand the many diverse peoples on the continent of Africa is through the stereotypes perpetuated in movies.[15] Within the confines of District 9, a Nigerian group was shown that routinely participated in black-market criminal activities that included a cat food ring, the purchase and sales of alien weaponry, and circulating human sex workers. The leader of the Nigerian group, an extremely violent man who wouldn’t hesitate to “cut you into pieces,”[16] shared the surname of the real former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo (1999-2007).[17] The fictional Obasanjo yearned to be an alien and practiced muti by consuming alien body parts with the belief that doing so would enable him to harness the aliens’ power. When he found out that Wikus’ left arm had become alien, Obasanjo held him hostage with the intent of eating his arm, hailing this as the final requirement for his assumption of alien powers.

In his film review, Wagner highlights that the negative rendering of the Nigerian community in the film mirrors that of South African media outlets.[18] The South African press consistently represents Nigerians as black magic practitioners and pyramid scheme operators.[19] These depictions paint Nigerians as a group of callous, cold-hearted criminals and as fixed characters without true motive, intention, or feelings. It came as no surprise that Nigeria banned the film and their Minister of Information and Communications, Dora Akunyili, demanded (to no reply) that Sony Entertainment apologize for the negative portrayal of Nigerians.[20] As a result, the perpetuation of corrupt and primitive Nigerians continues; including the characterizations in this film, the images of a continent of Africans that profits from criminal activities, practices witchcraft, and embraces cannibalism live on.

Overall, the film approaches enduring themes of paternalism and destructive foreign-military aid from a critical lens that is directly tied to South Africa’s history of post-colonial apartheid, but reinforces harmful stereotypes Nigerian communities in the process. At the film’s opening, aliens were blamed for the failed state of District 9. Wikus, a white Dutch South African employee of MNU, led the charge to relocate the aliens to District 10, which he stressed was a “safer and better location.”[21] His paternalistic role functioned to the financial benefit of weapons-maker MNU, the military force brought in as a commentary on the ethics of foreign aid and reinforced the view of aliens as inferior. Despite this political subtext, the film recycles the tropes of Africans as superstitious, cannibalistic gang members as the static backdrop against which to frame its hero’s (Wikus’) dramatic physical and moral transformations.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

District 9. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures, 2009. DVD.

Secondary Sources

Darcy, Jack. “Exploring Apartheid in District 9 (Movie Review).” Presentation at the Undergraduate Diversity Conference, Boulder, CO, February 18, 2010.

Jones, Matthew. “District 9. (Movie Review).” Film & History 40, no. 1 (2010): 120-122.

Keim, Curtis A., and Ebooks Corporation. Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2014.

Wagner, Keith B. “District 9, Race and Neoliberalism in Post-apartheid Johannesburg.” Race & Class 57, no. 2 (2015): 43-59.

Footnotes

[1] District 9 is a reference to the 1966 expulsion of black South Africans and other non-white ethnic groups from District 6 of Cape Town under the Group Areas Act. Black South Africans settled in a housing development of Cape Flats, located between a city and the sea with only one highway to enter and leave the city.

[2]Keith B. Wagner, “District 9, Race and Neoliberalism in Post-apartheid Johannesburg,” Race & Class 57, no. 2 (2015): 43-59, 47.

[3] The National Party of South Africa came into power in 1948 on a platform of apartheid (racial segregation) as a means to support poor white South Africans. This government created a series of provisions that affirmed apartheid and purposefully disenfranchised non-white South Africans.

[4] District 9, Directed by Neill Blomkamp, Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures, 2009, DVD, 05:00.

[5] Ibid., 10:38.

[6] Curtis A. Keim and Ebooks Corporation, Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind, 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2014, 47.

[7] Jack Darcy, “Exploring Apartheid in District 9 (Movie Review),” Presentation at the Undergraduate Diversity Conference, Boulder, CO, February 18, 2010, 3.

[8] District 9, Blomkamp, 17:00.

[9] Curtis A. Keim, Mistaking Africa, 95.

[10] District 9, Blomkamp, 22:00.

[11] Keith B. Wagner, “District 9, Race and Neoliberalism in Post-apartheid Johannesburg, 50.

[12] District 9, Blomkamp, 42:00.

[13] Ibid., 47:00.

[14] Ibid., 01:12:00.

[15] Curtis A. Keim, Mistaking Africa, 24.

[16] District 9, Blomkamp, 16:15

[17]Matthew Jones, “District 9. (Movie Review),” Film & History 40, no. 1 (2010): 120-122, 121.

[18] South Africa is inherently Eurocentric through colonial rule by Dutch and Britain. The legacy of colonialization lived on through Afrikaners who are Dutch descendants and the implementation of apartheid.

[19] Keith B. Wagner, “District 9, Race and Neoliberalism in Post-apartheid Johannesburg,” 48.

[20] Matthew Jones, “District 9. (Movie Review),” Film & History 40, no. 1 (2010), 121.

[21] District 9, Blomkamp, 06:57.

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