Gagging on a spoonful of tar

September 7, 2009

District 9
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
With Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Mandla Gaduka, William Allen Young, Vanessa Haywood, Kenneth Nkosi and Devlin Brown
In cinemas

Like many others in the US, we rushed to see District 9 the first night it was available. And as is often the case our whole ride home was a sharp back and forth of comparing notes. First arguing and then agreeing about the film.

This is a well-made and gripping film. It is clever. Parts are obviously derivative (Transformers? Independence Day? Alien Nation?), but even then the creative sparks made this movie feel like a new whole. And it's pretty well acted.

The intentions of the movie seem good: this is a pretty straight-up political parable on racism, corruption and intolerance.

A million aliens arrive, desperate and lost, and are treated like shit — herded into a huge Soweto-like camp, neglected, exploited, experimented upon, targeted for racist names ("prawns"), generally disrespected and misunderstood, and seen as competitors for land and jobs.

Change the places, change the names, change the species, and you are talking about undocumented workers in the US, or the youth of Soweto in 1975, or the much disrespected migrant workers in South Africa today (coming from the poorer states to the north).

So without being either too subtle or too heavy-handed, this film is conceived as a commentary on that kind of intolerance.

And the main character goes from being a willing tool (a tool in every sense of that word), to being an outraged nay-sayer. You follow his arc — as the pace of action escalates and the exposure of the system's crimes tumble out. And as the "humanity" of the "prawns" comes to the surface (in the form of a rather elite and hidden commander).

So this is a progressive parable, embedded in an exciting sci-fi movie. We all know what that is, and we all like it.

However, there is a problem embedded in this story. And it is the filmmakers' depiction of Black Africans.

And the debate over how to view this movie really boils down to how to evaluate that glaring flaw.

The main action of the movie involves the aliens and various white South Africans. There are vicious white mercenaries, murderous white government officials, corporate sharks, ambitious low-level hacks, and so on.

In keeping with the overall theme of the movie, the white authorities don't come off well — and they are shown as the main arm of oppression.

But at the same time, in subplots and cameos, Black Africans do appear (relegated to the margins within a South Africa which today has both a Black majority and a largely Black government). How are Black Africans portrayed?

There are Black tools of the system, fairly undeveloped armed guards, whose main lines consist of saying with enthusiasm "Yessir, boss!"

There is one (unexplored) Black bureaucrat (who ends up in prison at the end for whistleblowing, in a plot thread that is barely present or explained).

And then there are the Nigerian gangsters — operating within District 9 — selling meat and cat food to the aliens, and gathering alien weaponry in exchange.

The portrayal of these gangsters is horrific. White racist mythology of sub-Saharan Africans is concentrated in these characterisations.

The Nigerians are vicious, stupid, superstitious, corrupt, sadistic; slavishly led by a demented honcho who is an eager cannibal.

This is Idi Amin as symbol of the Black-ruled parts of this continent. These Africans are the wicked masters of chaos and District 9's mini "failed state".

It taps into every colonialist mythology about African inferiority — reminding me of the old cartoons of "civilized white men" standing bewildered in giant cooking pots while cannibals in grass skirts with bones in their hair tossed in carrots and potatoes. Except that narrative is updated with most of the familiar racist signifiers about "Black urban gangs".

Let's not be naive. This kind of portrayal expresses the view of many white South Africans — that "their" South Africa is "civilised" and functioning because of "their" own controversial white presence in the "multicultural" mix.

By contrast, the rest of Africa (represented by Nigeria) is seen as "Blacks ruling Blacks" — and as an unrelieved nightmare of human degradation and sadism.

Like all reactionary caricatures, it takes true things (the corruption of sub-Saharan Africa, the vicious murder gangs of east Congo, the genocide of Rwanda, the ethnic warfare of Kenya, the collapse of Somali government, the corrupt commodity schemes of failed states) and crafts out of them a false and insulting cameo for sub-Saharan African people that just turned my stomach.

In fact to show this further, there is an English-speaking liberalism in South Africa that sees itself as very enlightened and even "anti-racist".

It views the Boers (South African whites speaking a Dutch dialect) as racist cave-dwellers — as the authors of the horrors of apartheid. Yet this same Anglo-liberalism is notorious for its own deeply embedded sense of white superiority, and its own "civilising" mission.

There is a patronising white racism that self-righteously poses as support for a particularly non-radical kind of "multiculturalism" in South Africa.

This film struck me as a very coherent expression of that Anglo-liberalism in South Africa — with its vague support for tolerance, and its deeply flawed view of the real horrors of sub-Saharan Africa today.

In other words, this was not a racist portrayal of Nigerians somehow "plopped down" into a wholly different plotline — the racist view of sub-Saharan Blacks is part and parcel of a particular critique of apartheid and "the Boers".

So what are we to make of this?

This is a film that (overall) is intended as a cry against intolerance and the soulless injustices of apartheid (and post-apartheid) and yet it hands us one of the most ugly portrayals of African people I've long seen.

(Jar Jar Binks was an outrage, but this has a physically-deformed, scowling, demented Black chieftain who carves human flesh off a living arm to nibble it.)

A century ago, it was said "a spoonful of tar spoils a barrel of honey". (Back when you had barrels of honey!)

There is a barrel of honey here — a movie that is overall quite fine and otherwise engaging, with a simple central message that is delivered in an exciting and artful way.

And yet that spoonful of tar (the subplot with the Nigerian gangsters, and the general portrayal of Black-African people) just stripped it of any anti-racist coherency.

It flashed us with that undercurrent of white supremacist assumptions that lurks within so many patronising liberal schemes of "multiculturalism" and "tolerance".

Others will judge the balance of these things differently. Some will see the Nigerian portrayal as a minor flaw in a worthwhile piece. I can understand why that is a possible response.

But for me, the South African portrayal of merciless Nigerian monsters eating human and alien arms with raging megalomania just spoiled the whole thing. And that glaring "flaw" will inevitably affect the impact of such a movie on audiences —here and in South Africa.

[This review was first published at]

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