Not exactly an executive washroom.
Wikus’ promotion party.
MNU becomes visually much more sinister when we enter its alien testing laboratory.
A chillingly impassive scientist announces the beginning of the ‘pain threshold test’.
Wikus is compelled by an electric prod and a barking man to fire alien weapons.
Wikus, reduced to a medical specimen.
A university sociologist describes activities of the Nigerian gangsters in District 9.
She refers to various ‘scams’, including a cat food scam – a choice of words that adds weight to the complaint that the movie draws upon contemporary negative stereotypes associated with Nigeria such as the ‘419’ banking scams.
Gang leader Obesandjo. A reference to recent Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo?
A ‘muti’ scene, which has attracted particular criticism from Nnedi Okorafor for its regressive representation.
MNU has a black CEO.
But it is white men whom we see making high end and highly unpleasant decisions.
Less room is left for humour in the juxtaposition of Wikus’ suffering and the laboratory staff’s utter disregard for it as the scene progresses. A wild-eyed, shirtless and sweating Wikus is made to pull the trigger on various alien weapons — like the “pain threshold test,” calmly catalogued by a man who barks impatient commands at Wikus while he babbles. Compliance is shown to be as irrelevant here as it was when Wikus was evicting aliens: when he refuses to pull the trigger, an electric prod is used to generate the necessary nerve reaction.
"This body represents hundreds of millions, maybe billions of dollars' worth of biotechnology," two MNU executives are told. “There are people out there — governments, corporations, who’d kill for this chance.” Strapped and clamped down, Wikus reaches out for the arm of one of the executives, his father-in-law, but his arm is firmly pressed back down onto the stretcher. When the others raise the next of kin issue, the father-in-law looks down at Wikus’ face and declares, “I’ll handle that.” The group walks off, and the scene ends with the sound of the click of a camera, as an impassive technician photographs Wikus the medical specimen.
Blomkamp clearly finds technology “cool” (one of his favourite words on the DVD commentary track), and the technological sights and sounds of the movie are lovingly crafted — to that extent technology is a “feel-good” presence within the movie. Once again though, we are faced with a blend of the ostensibly thrilling but the ultimately pessimistic. Throughout the movie, technology is roughly equivalent with weaponry, and the relations between the aliens, MNU and the gangsters are determined by the desire on the part of the second two groups to acquire and use the weapons of the former. The interface between the biological and the technological leads only to further division and destruction: Wikus’ body is turned into a commodity to be exploited so that MNU might expand its arsenal.
Again, a contrast with Avatar forcibly suggests itself. In that movie, technology facilitates enhanced cross-cultural — cross-species — understanding: Jake (and others) transcend the human, at least physically, a prerequisite for their being able to participate in Na’vi culture. (Avatar is in this respect more dialectical than District 9. There is also a destructive, exploitative and colonialist dimension to this enterprise: some of Jake’s superiors intend that he will use his position to gather the intelligence necessary to remove the obstacle to mineral extraction that the Na’vi represent.) Avatar’s environmentalist creed is also given a contemporary technological gloss. The source of the Na’vi’s spiritual wealth is their ability to tap into what enlightened scientist Grace (Sigourney Weaver) at one point raptly describes as a “global network” of synaptic connections. In an intriguing rhetorical move by Cameron, contemporary information exchange networks do not straightforwardly divorce us from being in tune with our environment and the others who comprise it; they provide a potent metaphor — and model? — for this desirable state.
The Nigerian gangsters
The aspect of District 9 that has attracted by far the most Internet commentary is its use of “Nigerian gangster” characters. One discussion topic within the group “Light Up Nigeria” (“Advocacy for improved power supply in Nigeria using social communication and networking”) is “District 9 Hates Nigerians” — which has attracted 28 posts. [open endnotes in new window] The person who started the thread also set up a petition (now closed) which attracted 79 signatures. CNN reports that the country’s information minister issued a statement condemning the movie’s “stereotyp[ing]” and “stigmatiz[ation]” of Nigerians. The controversy was also reported, for example, in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, and in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. Two very interesting blogs on the topic, one of which exonerates the movie while the other attacks it, can be found on the Pan-African News Wire and on Nnedi’s Wahala Zone Blog.
As is often the case with the new media phenomena that we are all still coming to grips with, the form that these reactions have taken is as important and interesting as the claims that are advanced within them. The blogosphere becomes a tool via which advocacy groups and individuals can make themselves, their views, and their representations of Nigerian people available to as many people as a representation in a high-budget science fiction movie distributed by a multimedia multination (Sony), surely an unprecedented and welcome phenomenon.
One route available if one wishes to defend District 9 is to suggest that it is illogical to move from the proposition “all the characters that the film identifies as Nigerian are criminals who believe that by eating alien body parts they can acquire alien powers” to the larger and more damning proposition “the film believes that what is true of its Nigerian characters is true of all Nigerians.” The movie then remains culpable of employing a stereotype, but the scope of that stereotype is not as large as some of its critics would hold.
Taking a slightly different tack, we might ask, “Within the movie, how specific or exclusive to the Nigerian gangster characters are the negative attributes that the movie represents them as possessing?” (This can return us to the caveats expressed above regarding how far we are permitted to extrapolate from a representation of members of a group to claims about that group in its entirety, but we shall leave those aside for now). Nnedi Okorafor makes a telling point when she asks,
Contrastingly, Abayomi Azikiwe asserts,
I would certainly be keen to make the point, with Azikiwe, that the Nigerian gangsters’ behaviour and attributes are compositionally motivated, their brand of “muti,” for example, providing a parallel with the laboratory experiments of MNU, both being attempts to acquire the powers of another species.
The question of intentionality, though it cannot provide the final word here or elsewhere, is also an interesting one. My sense from watching the movie and listening to Blomkamp talk about it is that the representation of muti in particular is in the movie not because its director (and co-writer) is bent on depicting Nigerians as savages, but because it adds to the flavour he wants to lend his story-world, and because he finds the process mysterious, compelling, and again, probably “cool.” (This, one might say, is just a different form of racism, and one would be right to do so, but it does not mean that the distinction is not worth making.)
To quickly home in on just one more aspect: the name of the leading gangster in the movie raises questions about intention, and returns us once again to the issue of how representative a representation ought to be taken to be. “Obesandjo” (the character is played by Eugene Khumbanyiwa) is, as many commentators have observed, rather close to Olusegun Obasanjo, the name of a recent Nigerian president. Should we be reading this part of the movie, like others, through an allegorical lens? Or is it “just sloppy research”?
MNU possesses several black employees. For example, Wikus’ two principal companions on his eviction rounds, Fundiswa Mhlanga (Mandla Gaduka) and Thomas (Kenneth Nkosi) are black. It also appears to have a black CEO, whom we see on repeated occasions in the movie acting in a public relations role. However, when it comes to the exercising of real power there is not a black character to be seen — in the laboratory where men experiment on aliens and executives decide that Wikus should be dissected, and in District 9 where MNU’s hired mercenaries rule by force . This simultaneously exempts black characters from the worst evils of the munitions corporation and excludes them from power, which is shown as still ultimately residing with white characters. ‘Once again, a combination of this film’s ambiguities and blind spots, and vexing issues surrounding representation more broadly lead us towards general theoretical ruminations. When it comes to the representations of particular groups, what can we legitimately argue is being said by what is being shown, and to what extent are we permitted to extrapolate and generalize?
District 9 is an arresting thought experiment: what would happen if aliens arrived on earth? The scenario it envisages is a pessimistic yet thrilling critique of human xenophobia and the repressive and exploitative tendencies of states and corporations. The aliens would be viewed with fear and suspicion, subjugated, and if not set to work then exploited for whatever other potential for profit and power they possessed.
However, moving beyond the movie’s evocative iconography and penetrating dramatizations of encounters between the powerful and the powerless, its alternative world possesses less resonance and depth than its teeming surface might suggest. The alien population is represented as a perfect set of the attributes that colonialism and xenophobia alike assign to “natives” and immigrants respectively, thus blocking from the outset any prospect of progress or integration, and contradicting the movie’s more liberal impulses. Christopher Johnson’s exceptionality remains largely unexplained, and he is cut off from the rest of the alien population. The character of Wikus is left little room to breathe because of the conflicting roles he must fulfil: figure of fun, allegorical pawn, central identification figure. Like the aliens, Wikus is not granted a social existence that we can believe in or value. This makes the home that he wants to return to nothing more than a stock concept, and limits the movie’s ability to effectively dramatize a theme that, given its genre and action, is crucial to it — that of identity. The movie’s treatment of its “evil corporation,” MNU, usefully summarizes for us the pattern of District 9 as a whole. It begins by promising nuanced contemporary socio-political analysis, sketching a complex network of competing supraindividual actors, but then, in the service of a chase narrative, the film narrows it focus and coarsens its representations. As the classical Hollywood cinema at its best endlessly demonstrates, narratives focused on individuals can dramatize “impersonal social forces” and offer far-reaching critiques of institutions and modes of social organization. However, I cannot see the evidence to argue that such a critique is fully sustained or developed beyond District 9’s introductory scenes.