Back in 2009, fifteen years after the end of apartheid, South Africa seemed to be the obvious place to make movies that offered clear metaphors about racism and xenophobia. Today, they’d probably be filmed in Minneapolis, but nonetheless, after more than ten years, this movie works just as well, perhaps even better in this time, when people have to fight for their lives against both racism and an invasive disease.
DISTRICT 9 is directed by Neill Blomkamp and produced by Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson), and set in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is presented as “found footage” – fictional news stories, CCTV and interviews. District 9 is an internment camp for aliens – not from across the border or across the ocean, but across the universe. A giant UFO hovers above the city showing no signs of life, and when the authorities cut their way inside they find it is full of diseased and starving aliens, who look, as Roger Ebert said, like two metre tall lobsters. They are brought to land and housed in a secure area – District 9 – where they recover, and cause havoc with their love of wrecking stuff and eating lots of cat food.
Yes, it’s not without humour. There are “interviews” with people of different races, all saying that these aliens – now known universally as “prawns” – should be sent home or else taken out of the city, away from human contact. Resettlement camp, detention centre, ghetto – those who are different can be separated with just some pernicious circumlocution.
The movie follows Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a naïve and nerdy mid-level executive in a huge multi-national corporation called MNU (it stands for Multi National United), which supplies mercenaries for just such situations.
Wikus heads off with his army and a clipboard, believing that he is going to knock on doors and ask the “prawns” to agree to be moved to a new camp, whereas of course the whole process is aimed at intimidation and terrorising of the populace.
Searching one building, he finds a tube of alien fuel, which they have been synthesising for twenty years, planning an escape. He opens it, and it sprays all over him.
Soon, he starts metamorphosing into a “prawn” – his hand turns into an alien claw, and his teeth and nails start to fall out. This is obviously a big problem – actually two. First, his company, MNU, wants to cut him up and study his organs, desperate to learn how to transmute others, because the aliens have immensely powerful weapons that will only operate in the hands of someone with alien DNA. He escapes back to District 9, pursued by the sadistic head of the corporation’s private army, who personifies white supremacist violence.
Back in District 9, Wikus is captured by a Nigerian criminal gang, who make their fortune from the aliens, selling them cat food, and offering interspecies prostitution (delicately presented). The Nigerians’ leader, whose name is taken from that of a former President of Nigeria, also wants to control those weapons, and believes eating Wikus’ arm will make him part alien as well. Why not just eat a prawn? Oh, they’ve tried that.
The trope of cannibals taking on the strengths of those they eat has been around pretty much forever. It is used to explain both mortuary cannibalism, where the strength of the ancestors is passed to the descendants through their flesh, and also aggressive cannibalism where the legs of the fastest enemy, or the testicles – you get the idea. It revolves around the idea that “you are what you eat”, but if you believe that, well, what does that say about the trolls who love to write “But BACON!” on vegan social media sites?
The film was shot around Johannesburg, and the squalid hovels shown were in an area of Soweto that was being demolished and the people relocated. The story is based on the true case of District Six in Capetown, where 60,000 inhabitants were forcibly removed during the 1970s by the apartheid regime. But finding a parallel story of forced removals of oppressed populations would not be difficult in most of the world’s nations. A reviewer wrote in an article entitled “District 9 reveals human inhumanity”:
“Substitute “black,” “Asian,” “Mexican,” “illegal,” “Jew,” or any number of different labels for the word “prawn” in this film and you will hear the hidden truth behind the dialogue, echoing what we historically as a species are all too capable of doing.”
Several different facets of cannibalism are presented in District 9. The Nigerians eat “prawns” – is that cannibalism, or if not, what about their plan to eat Wikus as he transforms into a prawn? The big corporation is only interested in the billions of dollars that will come from working out how to operate the alien weapons, and are ready and willing to sacrifice Wikus and use his body parts in pursuit of this goal. The aliens are tall and powerful (pulling people limb from limb in a few scenes) and look a bit reminiscent of the creatures from the Alien movie franchise, even though they don’t eat each other or the humans; but they are keen on meat from other species like pigs and goats and whoever ends up in the slurry called cat food.
The formal definition of cannibalism tries to restrict the definition to humans eating humans, but it is always leaking out the sides. What we see in this film is the way that anyone can be abused, objectified and even eaten if they can be reclassified as inhuman or subhuman. Wikus starts the story happy to burn down shacks full of alien eggs, enjoying the sound of the eggs bursting, which sounds like popcorn. Captured by the corporation and made to operate alien weapons, he is happy to destroy pigs but begs not to be made to shoot the aliens. Later, turning into a “prawn”, he is more than happy to use the alien weapons to blow apart various soldiers of his former employer, to protect the prawns. The irony of this film is that Wikus, who is a fully carnophallogocentric human in the terms used by Derrida (“adult white male, European, carnivorous and capable of sacrifice”), only finds his humanity when he begins morphing into something else and becomes one of the outsiders he previously disdained.
It’s well worth seeing – if you don’t dig the message, then there’s plenty of action scenes, car chases and explosions. Some unintended explosions after the movie, too, when the Nigerian Information Minister asked cinemas to ban the film because it depicted Nigerians as criminals and cannibals. Not the first time white people have applied those epithets against Africans, and the film also scored a mention in Salon’s list of “white saviour” movies, since Wikus is white, and desperate to remain so. But the Malawian actor, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, who played the gang leader, said that the Nigerians in the cast weren’t bothered: “It’s a story, you know. It’s not like Nigerians do eat aliens. Aliens don’t even exist in the first place.” Sensible, but not a great look for a film that is slamming racist stereotypes through the metaphor of speciesism.
The direction is adroit and the story buzzes along with never a dull moment. The acting is first rate, even the guys in the alien suits become sympathetic characters, and the special effects are first rate. The film has a 90% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s available on Netflix.