Saturday, August 29, 2009

District Nine Review: I'm Outside the Target Demographic

'Lo Peoples,


First off, thanks so much to Jack Womack and Tobias Buckell for their kind permission to include their District Nine observations in this entry for a balanced perspective. See their links and commentary below.

So now I shall launch into my rant. Buckell and Womack are far more generous with their praise than I can be. A quote from the Lemurian sums up my overall movie grade: "20% great ideas 80% upsetting."

Images hurt. Maybe there aren't any cries of pain from viewers, at first. Some viewers don't even realize when they've been sliced. The wounds catch up with them later in the recesses of their subconscious when the infection sets in and goes to rot. It's not good.

So I present to you my beef against D9, or District Nine.

Propaganda is a powerful medium. Combined with the movie industry, it is a near-innocuous delivery system. It is often used in service of racist, homophobic, and bigoted agendas. 300. Enough said. Or maybe not enough said, because year after year I see the same tired tropes being dusted off by nonBlack directors and film creatives and being foisted upon an unsuspecting public in the name of Entertainment. May I ask to whom is Blackface funny? Not me.

Earlier this summer, my brother, the Lemurian, and I saw the preview for District Nine. We saw the aliens. Cool. The image of a big ship floating over a city. It suggested that we might see an intelligent response to Spielberg's Close Encounters. We were hooked. Opening weekend we transported ourselves to a Regal Cinema and an evening show. Unlike Harry Potter which we had also just seen, District Nine, didn't seem to merit a larger screen in the theatre's eyes. The Lemurian and I have a habit of preferring dark horse movies so that didn't daunt us. Perhaps it should have been a warning.

D9. D9. D9.

We'd seen images from the preview of dark-skinned peoples complaining about the aliens. Just a few second sound bytes to set the mood. We knew Blomkamp would go to some touchy spaces, but we gave the movie the benefit of the doubt, and continued to watch. Segregated aliens being equated with the historically Black Africans who suffered and endured Apartheid made for a metaphor that the Lemurian and I could identify with. "Prawn" doesn't have the quite the same sting as the "N-word" "Kaffir" but, hey, we were still on the same bus with Blomkamp at that point. The Nigerians traded cat food for alien weapons. We merely raised an eyebrow. Quirky. But still within the realm of possibility.

Then, we got knocked off the bus.

D9. D9. D9. D9. D9. D9.

The Nigerians also prostituted their scantily clad women to the aliens. Interspecies sex does not offend me, but I won't speak for the Lemurian. Exploitation of women does outrage us and in, particular, the exploitation of Black women. The Khoi woman, Sara Baartman's remains had only been returned to her homeland since 2002. I am referring to the Hottentot Venus. She was used as a prostitute and displayed as a sexual oddity. Now seven years later, a scifi movie implies that Nigerian women bonk aliens, because naturally, no nonBlack woman would. Nor did I see any nonBlack women in the movie except in respectable, mostly clothed appearances.

Upon viewing the Nigerian prostitutes and smugglers in D9, I cringed in my seat while the Lemurian went into his "I'm-gonna-have-to-disembowel -somebody" mode.

Next, the Nigerian priestess incites the crippled leader of the Nigerians to feast upon "Prawn" parts to increase his strength. As someone who practices a traditional African religion, I am fuming. Here we go again with the "Hoodoo-Voodoo" stereotype. I realize that "Muti" maimings and killings exist, but in this context, the image is reprehensible. It results in the idea that a Nigerian, read Black man or Black woman, equals a prostituting, weapons trafficking, witch doctor, evil cannibal. Most viewers would not even question Blomkamp. Doesn't everybody know this is just how those Nigerians are? Yeah right.

I could barely contain myself when the audience cheered upon the group of Nigerians' deaths. The majority of the audience is not African descended. To them, these images are just colorful accents to a powerful story. I and the Lemurian are off the bus and are left completely aware we are solidly outside the target demographic. Upon genetic testing, I'll bet you my ancestry is probably Nigerian.
Try substituting another ethnicity in place of the Nigerians and the impact is still troubling. Movies slip past most people's internal censors and go straight to the subconscious. This is defamation of an an entire ethnic group.

D9. D9. D9. D9. D9. D9. D9. D9. D9. D9. D9. D9. D9. D9. D9. D9. D9.

Now lest a reader think I am merely whining, I have included feedback from two other science fiction writers who also saw the movie.

First we shall hear from veteran author and publicist Jack Womack:

"Tangh-i, 'OK, saw it yesterday with Carrie, old pal/former girlfriend/current 'Aunt' in our Her initial reaction: 'That was the weirdest damn version of ET I've ever seen.'

"Clearly (on a serious note, now) some *considerable* racial weirdness underlying (and overlying) this film, some of which is clearly just plain black/white, some of which I suspect may be particularly black/SouthAfrican white -- some of which is obviously conscious, and some of which I suspect is unconscious (or, more accurately, subconscious.) I'm going to be all over the place here, but let me write down things as they come to mind.

"So first let us consider, were this an actual situation, what would be the likelihood that Nigerians (or any other group) would be allowed to set up camp, live, etc., within a clearly demarcated township/concentration camp zone? Not so much, I don't believe; as I recall the townships (which Dist 9 is clearly patterned on) were secured under apartheid though I honestly don't know to what degree. But in Dist 9, it would appear to me that by the start the area is pretty much supposed to be off-limits to people, and policed from without accordingly.

"Therefore what would and should naturally develop, if the aliens are so close to humans in behavioral patterns as they would appear to be within the context of the script, would be over the course of twenty years, especially in such clearly intolerable circumstances, the development of criminal groups *within the ranks of the aliens themselves* a la the way sonderkommandos were selected within the German camps, the way the criminal elements ruled the political prisoners in the gulags etc. etc. etc. I could in that case see outside elements (conceivably Nigerian, but most likely South African locals, whether black, People of Color, or white/Afrikaaner) serving as the conduits through which an under-the-table market for cat food, cow's heads, etc. are thereby provided, through the fences etc., to the aliens in exchange for......what?

"Well, some sort of McGuffin -- within the film you wouldn't need to have anything but the sketchiest idea. Unless the government/MultiNational United itself has deliberately chosen this route i.e. to provide the bad element to be on hand that keeps the rest in control – but it seems to me the MNU is perfectly capable of keeping everybody miserable, when it wants.

"And this calls to mind another fine question: clearly, the aliens are able to reproduce -- the little guy (who was my favorite character, actually, and the smartest....) being clear evidence of that -- if a hooker market developed, why would it not develop among the aliens themselves??? Leaving aside the entire typical question of interspecies intercourse, which this would clearly be in this case and pace Kirk/Spock slash, we know would be not that popular. So why would A) we first hear about Nigerian hookers? (Heavens, Those People will screw anything....) For that matter, where the hell were the female aliens?

"Now, another point. Considering that that the SA government may or may not be black-majority or Afrikaaner-majority ( that's never really made clear, is it? If the latter, then we could be dealing with an alternative history, but that's left hanging, for better or worse.)
"Now, the more I’m thinking about it, the more I *suspect* that the dramatic parallel was intended to be that the (white) MNU was just as brutal and relentless and bloody when it came to dismantling the hero for his parts, to gain power, as the (black) Nigerian gangsters. But it’s taken me considerable dwelling on the movie for this to become clearer to me.

"Now the eternal question raised by the Critics: can't you have seriously f*kd up evil black characters in a movie? Of course you can. (Forest Whitaker as Amin; and in Devil Wears A Blue Dress, it's really hard to beat Don Cheadle as Mouse, just to think of a couple off the top of my head; those are also fairly complicated characters, as well.) The central character, here, could have been made a government rep, as opposed to an MNU rep (or is he a government rep? I'm not clear) in which case he could have been black and his nefarious father-in-law could have been black etc. -- it's not as if the contemporary SA government hasn't done some f*d up things and their AIDS policies are beyond horrible.

[A Tangh-i Note: Blackwater and Xe refers to a known private security contractor.]

"Here’s something I was unclear on: the MNU, like Blackwater/Xe/You name it clearly has Caucasoids in charge, though blacks are working as same. And, the MNU is clearly not the government, but operates with full government backing. What is the makeup of the government? Is it ever made clear if it is as today (i.e. African-led) or as an alternative world slightly adjusted Afrikaaner-with Africans working not in the top positions?
"Leaving aside any present-day cultural actualities in Africa, whether SA or Nigeria (Muti, etc.) the basic takeaway for the viewer, as it plays, seems to me:

"1) Aliens: good, but troubled, and bad only in response to their treatment
2) Whites: some good, some bad, some very bad 3) Blacks: mostly bad (hookers, black marketers, weapons dealers, gangsters, cannibals), one noncommittal (the press secretary), one mercenary doing his job but not in charge, one good guy seen very briefly as the one who has found out the hero was in the right, has exposed the genetics program of MNU, and is under arrest/awaiting trial for having done so. "The sheer spectacle of the film, the pacing, the fine performance of the lead are all superb -- but there was considerable room for improvement. Considerable."

Thank you, Mr. Womack. And now we shall hear from the Nebula award nominee, Mr. Buckell. By the way, Mr. Buckell does have an excellent review of D9 that he composed after we had this email conversation. Go to

Tobias Buckell:

"Hey Jarla, I don't have a review yet. I'm of two minds about the movie. 1) I'm happy to see SF at least *trying* something in this direction, and for 30 million, which could mean more movies get made 2) Major stumble on the Nigerians. I think the director was trying to show an apartheid world, but kept forgetting to focus on white/black human interactions because he was hammering the alien/human interaction as being the stand in metaphor. As a result, he made some big mistakes. And I wonder what prompted the Nigerians characterization.

"As a result, many white people are going to praise the movie as being an amazing look at race relations, as they're only focusing on the standing metaphor, others who are more inclued will ask 'what about the actual black people in the movie?'

"(Of course, as an SF writer I think the aliens=black people metaphor is a troubling one b/c it contributes to total othering, and due to more bad characterization, other than the nice alien and kid, the other aliens don't really make any sense or have their culture explained, so if you take the metaphor at face value, it actually crumbles the movie).

"Part of the director's mistake was his desire to portray humans with a total misanthropic brush, not a single human in the pic is a nice person, but I think as part of his simplistic characterization he did wrong.

"So I view it as an action-filled half step forward/half step back, ultimately going nowhere, but that might prompt some people to do better, and maybe we'll get more of a focus on the idea that 20 mil SF movies can be made instead of 100-200 mil."

Thank you again, Mr. Buckell.

I have also heard reportings from other movie goers that the demonization of the Nigerians springs from actual socio-ethnic conflicts in South Africa. These D9 aliens may be actually modelled upon refugees from neighboring Zimbabwe. It may be indeed actuality, but it is difficult not to suspect another agenda, because the Nigerians spend more onscreen time than any other Black ethnic group. The Nigerians are also specifically named. There is no "friendly" Nigerian in the cast to soften the perception. Nor is the Zimbabwean = alien connection made explicit.

I've also heard praises of the white protagonist's antiheroic characterization as a darkly humorous truth. I have no beef with the person of Wikus van de Merwe.

I'm also more sympathetic to the inclusion of a "magical alien" in the being of the "Prawn" Christopher Johnson. Imagine if Christopher weren't so forgiving? Enough to keep one awake at night.

In closing, the segregated and exploited alien trope in D9 was its highlight. That's why the issues I brought up hurt so much. There is a Black character who tells the truth about the MNU's treatment of the aliens who ends up jailed which might have been added to provide balance, but I'm sorry, the evil Nigerian trope overpowered any other contrast. It hits viewers on the primal level whereas the MNU's crimes seem reasonable. It might as well say: This is what arises from military-industrial complexes. Doesn't everyone know that? But hey, Blacks eating body parts is even worse.

The reason I take umbrage about the Nigerians' depiction in D9 is because a group is clearly being targeted, not an individual character as in the Whittaker and Cheadle performances. This is where the film veers into Racism and Bigotry. I'm not insisting that Blacks can't be villains. It is the context in which the villain operates. Idi Amin is a known historical figure. Making a movie about Amin is not presenting a "slant" that will result in all Ugandans being judged accordingly. Evil Nigerians in Fiction are problematic because after the fantastic elements are removed what's left is pure prejudice.


Her Tangh-i-ness

Disclosure: We actually paid money to go see this movie. GRRRRRRR.

No comments:

Post a Comment