I saw District 9 last Friday knowing only that it had aliens, a power suit, and no connections to movie, toy, or restaurant franchises. I saw aliens, and I saw a wicked power suit, but I also saw something profound. Consider this your spoiler warning.
For a while I subscribed to the documentary podcast by the BBC world service. I was sure that in-depth tales of far off places spoken in the Queen’s English would drown out distractions at work. However, the more episodes I listened to, the more I heard things that put me in the mood for a beat down. Chinese citizens we’re getting hit with nightsticks simply for filing a complaint. African immigrants were crossing the Sahara to Europe only to get robbed and left for dead. Iranian girls were being raped and then sentenced to death for adultery. I thought to myself, when does it get fun to do that kind of stuff to other people? Since I found I couldn’t do any work while angrily pacing the room, I stopped downloading the podcast.
When I saw the documentary-style presentation of District 9, I was reminded of the more grim episodes of the BBC podcast. The Aliens’ situation seemed no different than the plight of any transient population anywhere in the world. The film was also different from the podcast and other sci-fi fables about race in that the Aliens weren’t simply this noble race of “other”. They had problems just like any other large group of people. They were depicted as dirty, lazy, violent, and quite possibly high on catfood, their favorite narcotic. At the start of the film, they were not getting evicted because a bunch of bureaucrats woke up one day and thought “hmm, I’m not doing anything today, let’s go put some prawns in a concentration camp”. There was a genuine, but misguided sense of self-preservation involved here.
In places like BC we tend to think of racism in terms of slogans like “Save Darfur”, “Free Tibet”, and “Don’t say that n-word”. When you’re from a place like South Africa, like District 9 director and writer Neill Blomkamp, you are aware that overcoming racism is more complicated than that. It’s important to maintain that kind of perspective especially when we look at history. If we simply write off things like the Japanese internment or the Chinese Head Tax as simply the acts of some dirty racists, we lose the context that came with those events. Without it, we won’t be able to recognize such lines of thinking until we are entertaining them ourselves, and by then it may be too late to prevent something monstrous from happening.
District 9 is a triumph in that it steers clear of easy answers and logical straw men. It does everything a science fiction film is supposed to do. It takes reality, removes the political baggage, and allows us to see how we truly are, warts and all.