Unstable Allegories of Eviction and Othering in District 9
As Hollywood’s first and only science-fiction blockbuster set in South Africa’s economic capital, District 9 was subjected upon release to cursory analyses by critics who are superficially familiar with the history and modern social context of the film’s country. These reviews unilaterally assumed the film’s central message to be an allegorical recapitulation of apartheid, the system of institutionalized racism that was officially upheld from 1948 to 1994. Exemplary reviews from Washington D.C.’s NPR, London’s The Guardian, and Johannesburg’s Mail & Guardian respectively refer to District 9 as “an apartheid allegory,” a film with “allegorical overtones” of apartheid, and an “allegory of apartheid and xenophobia.” In all three articles, the insistence on an allegorical reading is drawn from the film’s focus on a segregation-motivated forced eviction of a non-human population and a proposed historic parallel with evictions of South Africa’s urban non-white populace. Academic articles written later, such as Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ “Apartheid, Spectacle and the Real: From District Six to District 9,” and Michael Valdez Moses’ “The Strange Ride of Wikus Van de Merwe,” also fall into the same pattern of assuming allegorical intentions on behalf of the filmmaker, and evaluate District 9’s socially progressive merit or lack thereof on those grounds, rather than on a direct interpretation of the film’s symbolic content.
Unsurprisingly, the reviewers writing furthest from the film’s locale were most likely to locate District 9’s allegorical message in the past, and locate it apart from Johannesburg. The American magazine Newsweek published an article entitled “The Real District 9: Cape Town’s District Six” that states, “of course [the film is] about apartheid and segregation, but to South Africans it’s also about Cape Town’s now-defunct District Six, and the real-life slums that rose up when it was dismantled.” Heller-Nicholas, an Australian academic, supports this view, writing that the “aliens of District 9 mirror the non-white residents in District Six, who were already victims of the most flagrant injustices at the hands of government sanctioned discrimination before they were forcefully relocated. Blomkamp’s film exposes the horror and cruelty of this eviction.” The assumption implicit in her analysis is that “exposure” of historical injustice is the allegorical intent of the work, an assumption which discounts the less glowingly progressive anti-allegorical readings of the film.
We find a contemporary allegorical interpretation in an article from South Africa’s own Mail and Guardian also entitled “The Real District 9.” The author draws parallels from the fictional slum to the currently-standing Soweto shantytown of Chiawelo, where District 9 was filmed. They also correlate the proposed fictional District 10 to the real-life refugee camps to which foreign national slum-dwellers were forcibly relocated when the slums were made unsafe by xenophobic attacks and riots before, during, and after filming. Another Australian academic, Simone Brott, strongly argues for these corollaries: “filming of the science-fiction film in an evacuated shack settlement used real immigrants as extras, and it witnessed those same dispossessed persons being forcibly transferred to Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) government housing during the making of the film, leaving behind a sea of empty shacks. District 9 is not hyperreality or verité, it is reality.” Further supporting her claim is District 9 director Neill Blomkamp’s statement that the dialogue used in the interviews of the film’s opening sequence was minimally altered from non-fictional interviews with native black South African township residents about foreign migrants.
Both popular press articles are correct in identifying thematic resonance between the film’s evictions and real-life events, but an allegorical reading of the film is confounded by the presence of two distinct temporal/geographic real-life contexts for the film’s fictional eviction. If we follow film scholar David Christopher’s proposition that “one might broadly define allegory as any narrative that symbolically references events and people who comprise an identifiable historic event,” it becomes clear that despite its abundance of symbolic references, District 9 lacks an unambiguously identifiable singular event for an allegory. We can see this in the opening sequence of the film, which focuses heavily on a timeline of the alien arrival through and after apartheid rule. Time-stamped VHS footage of the ship’s arrival in 1982 is rapidly juxtaposed with ‘documentary’-style to-camera interviews with MNU employees, a sociologist, and a journalist in the modern day, with the new timeframe visually confirmed by the 2008 calendar on Wikus’ desk. A few eye-level contemporary shots of signs barring entry to non-humans in public places, the signs used heavily in the advertising and viral marketing of District 9, are followed by modern day news footage, commentary, and the word-on-the-street interviews that Brott confirmed as transcribed from the real words of xenophobic South Africans. The effect of this montage is a collapsing of temporality: the audience tracks the grainy historical footage of the ship’s opening, the signage in the alternate present that carries warnings reminiscent of apartheid zoning to South African viewers and of Jim Crow laws to American viewers, and scenes of protest and rioting, all in the same visual field. The audience can then conflate these disparate visual metaphors for refugee arrival, institutional discrimination, and popular outrage into one symbolic cluster of the social issues the film’s speculative elements seek to address. This clustering does not allow for a specific modern or historical reading of the aliens’ arrival because the condensed timeline precludes the audience from sensing a significant difference in the way the aliens are treated in either timeframe.
Another cluster of imagery is evident in the cutting from news footage of human violence against aliens to news footage of alleged alien violence and property destruction against humans. The messages in the news ticker progresses through “Human and alien rioting continues for fourth day” to “non-humans violently evicted from townships” and “humans want aliens out” in the first montage of clips, which is generally sympathetic to the aliens. The ticker starts with “alien violence escalates” and ends with “alien violence spreads downtown” in the second montage, which includes imagery of the slum’s shacks burning and a train being derailed. The viewer’s sympathies can shift rapidly from clip to clip, as aliens and humans are alternately held up as victims of inter-species conflict. Allegory is defined as taking place in a specific time and place and historical narrative, so the rapid jumping between time, place, and narrative tone in this scene, and indeed throughout the film, challenges any allegory that might arise from similarities between District 9’s plot and real-life events.
Another critic of allegorical readings, UC Davis’ Joshua Clover, argues that what “forecloses allegory . . . is the impossibility of establishing who the aliens “really are”; it can only be allegory, after all, if they stand in the place of some identifiable group.” The first five minutes of eviction footage in the film effectively Others the non-human characters so radically that despite their shared circumstances with real refugees and apartheid victims, no parallel can be drawn with their reactions to imposed poverty. If the film’s documentary segments are taken to be canonical truth in the fictional context, the aliens are shown to be literally mindless and monstrous, with a biological drive to addiction, a tendency towards wanton destruction, and a superhuman capacity for murder. In their most inhuman moment, we see aliens enthusiastically colluding with their predatory drug dealers in a cockfight between their (presumed non-sentient) larval offspring. Past this point, it is impossible to label the aliens as direct stand-in for any distinct group of South Africans in history or modernity.
If these scenes are taken at face value they imply that the filmmaker presents the victims of institutional racism as inherently violent and disgusting, pitiable for their plight, but not respectable as people. This is at odds with the positive allegorical portrayals of alien victimhood presented by the film reviewers, but not with the analysis of scholars who contend that Blomkamp’s film has racist, regressive tendencies. After describing the portrayal of District 9’s Nigerian gangsters as a “distillation of some of the most negative contemporary South African stereotypes of Nigerian immigrants,” film scholar Michael Valdez Moses argues:
“If the Nigerians are a throwback to the negative colonial stereotype of the ‘primitive’ African, the ‘prawns’ correspond to both the old stereotype and a new one, no less negative for being up-to-date: that of the shiftless, violent, and degenerate urban African lumpenproletariat.”
Christopher similarly picks up on a naturalized stereotype inherent in the aliens’ portrayal: “the alien addiction to cat food is a genetic predisposition and echoes racist notions that narcotics addiction is a similarly genetic predisposition of ostensibly inferior racial breeds.” Despite the layers of irony in the film’s meta-fictional structure – the ‘documentary’ of the aliens’ ordeal could arguably be skewed at times to cast the aliens in an unpleasant light – the literalism of the stereotype is made evident by that fact that “Wikus is already addicted upon his alien transformation” in a scene shown outside of the ‘documentary’ framing.
These analyses indicate that, because our inability to locate one-to-one fictional/non-fictional analogues for the aliens and their slum destabilizes an allegorical reading of District 9, the film opens up to broader criticism and analysis of its metaphoric content. Christopher uses this lens to argue that “the film narrative explicitly addresses social and political inequalities, and in doing so creates an illusion that it cannot possibly reproduce them – a convenient political tool of the film itself, a sort of entertainment criticism false-consciousness.” Valdez Moses follows that argument by conceding that the film, once disassociated from an expectation of allegory, becomes open to interpretation, but nevertheless reflects in some major ways the convictions of the filmmaker:
“To be sure, the degraded condition of the aliens might be interpreted from a liberal perspective as the result of their mistreatment and oppression by the South African authorities and MNU, rather than the manifestation of their inherent viciousness. But this progressive view of matters does nothing to explain the most disturbing aspects of District 9, its thinly veiled portrait of post-apartheid South Africa as a political dystopia.”
One with such a “liberal perspective” could argue that the film’s presentation of subjugated persons engaging in forms of violence toward which they are innately attuned could be metaphorically read as an ironic depiction of a particular real-life narrative, employed around the world by police and ‘anti-terror’ forces. The narrative vision of the subaltern’s innate capacity for insurrectionary violence is frequently invoked to justify the hegemon’s domination over subaltern bodies. The popular belief in this narrative was recent given national attention by White American police officer Darren Wilson’s testimonial depiction of his African-American shooting victim, Michael Brown, as a monstrous figure superhumanly capable of hurting him.
The film features hallmarks of this narrative in every scene wherein a prawn is shown to be superhumanly capable of extreme violence. One such scene is the introduction of the aliens’ biologically-encoded weaponry, which is shown to be highly destructive in a ‘documentary’ segment. In an interview clip, it is said by a journalist that it “just doesn’t work with humans, and it’s as simple as that.” The other clear examples of the alien’s innate capacity for violence are the two times in the film when aliens tear off human limbs.
There is compelling evidence, that the film does not take the “progressive view of matters” against the dominant cultural narrative of innate subaltern aggression, but instead reifies its grasp on our imagination. The presence of innate alien violence in the film is not presented by the film’s state propaganda stand-ins (MNU interviews and mainstream news footage) but by the ‘documentary’ footage used to layer in ‘objective realism’ to the film’s plot, which is otherwise mediated by the opinions of the storytellers. The literalism of these scenarios upholds, rather than satirizes or contests, the popular belief in an innate capacity for, or propensity toward violence in disenfranchised populations.
Blomkamp has made clear in the press his intentions not to make a film solely focused on apartheid metaphors but to satirically envision what an extraterrestrial landing would look like in his home country, incorporating elements of South Africa’s xenophobia, organized crime, and corporatized militarism. When prompted by a Canadian interviewer to “get the giant apartheid metaphor out of the way first,” Blomkamp responded with his assertion that the film
“isn’t necessarily just a metaphor for apartheid . . . it is meant to be a whole bunch of topics that had an effect on me when I was living there . . . the collapse of Zimbabwe and the flood of illegal immigrants into South Africa, and then how you have impoverished black South Africans in conflict with the immigrants. All that amounts to a very unusual situation. And South Africa [as] the birthplace of the modern private military contractor . . . a lot of other things besides apartheid . . . such as segregation in general.”
Unfortunately, this grab bag of themes necessarily includes the director’s perspective as a white expatriate who grew up during apartheid, now looks upon modern Joburg as having violently degenerated upon integration, and lacks the perspective to see the roots of historical disenfranchisement in such a development. Blomkamp’s exploration of “segregation in general” falls back on tired tropes of an Other naturally and violently unfit for human civilization, all in an earnest attempt to speculate without allegorizing on how we generally treat Othered groups, including refugees and victims of racial discrimination. The film avoids simplistic retroactive cultural criticism only to reveal an essential lack of critical thought in the director’s view of the people currently inhabiting ‘the real District 9.’ Bibliography Bouie, Jamelle. “Michael Brown Wasn’t a Superhuman Demon to Anyone but Darren Wilson.” Slate. The Slate Group, 26 Nov. 2014. Web. 20 Dec. 2014.