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District 9 Not Racist [Alternative Alternative Perspective]

26 August 2009

This is the original District 9 article. Before you leave me hate in the comments, read the amended version: A Retraction & Clarification on District 9 Review.

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Either my racism radar is way off base, or this Racialicious article is way off base.

I actually skimmed this article before I had a chance to see the movie. Blame Facebook for that. Someone on my friends list linked it, and I couldn’t resist a quick peek.

* * * * S P O L I E R   A L E R T ! * * * *

The author of the Racialicious article, Nicole Stamp of Pageslap, was bothered by District 9’s portrayals of the aliens as “loathsome, trash-eating vermins,” because of the analogy many people, including the producers of the movie, drew between the alien containment in District 9, and the real life people containment in Cape Town, South Africa under the system of apartheid. Stamp figures, aliens = Black people, aliens = gross, therefore, Black people must also = gross. Also, Stamp contended with the portrayals of the Nigerian gangbangers as, well, Nigerian gangbangers. Here, maybe Stamp figures, Black people don’t do bad things in real life, therefore, Black people doing bad things in the movies = racism. Lastly, Stamp took issue with the Nigerian gangbanger boss’ taste for alien flesh. Stamp believes that this representation implies that all Black people are barbaric, cannibalistic savages.

Although I was forewarned of this “appalling racism,” I didn’t see it.  Any of it. If anything, I think District 9 puts forth a pro-tolerance, pro-rights message.

First off, all the characters the audience hates are white. The main character, Wikus van der Merwe, seems slimy and gross, right off the bat. He’s a major kiss-ass, and you can tell that other characters in the movie don’t really like him, either. The way he got excited when the shack those alien babies were in got blown up lets you know that, as a conscientious person, you’re supposed to hate him, too. Nobody not gross would get excited at babies of ANY kind, of ANY species getting blown up. That’s just sick. The other two people portrayed in really evil & vile ways are also white: van der Merwe’s boss, and the crazy Army/military general.

Although the audience eventually warmed to van der Merwe, that didn’t happen until he was squarely on the side of the aliens. When Wikus van der Merwe got inside that robot of destruction machine-thing towards the end of the movie and started blowing shit up, people around me starting cheering. And I mean, CHEERING. We were just WAITING for the evil alien-hating white characters to get blown up. For people who saw this in theaters: tell me if this isn’t true.

Up until that point, everyone around me  was shifting around uncomfortably in their seats as van der Merwe commits faux pas after faux pas. He’s patronizing to the aliens, he treats them like they have no feelings when it’s obvious that they are sentient creatures, he appears to take joy from their suffering… I mean, he does everything that you’re not supposed to do if you’re a well-meaning white liberal in this world and you find yourself faced with someone who looks different than you.

I also didn’t think, as Stamp appeared to, that the representations of the Nigerian gangbangers were racist. They’re GANGBANGERS. They’re supposed to horde guns and engage in shady black market deals for drugs, or the equivalent of drugs in this movie, which was cat food. If they were sitting around a campfire, braiding each other’s hair, and doing ice breakers, they wouldn’t be Nigerian gangbangers. And that whole eating alien flesh to gain their magical powers subplot? There are areas of the world where people eat animals that we, here in the United States, wouldn’t eat. That is a fact. There are all kinds of creatures and parts of creatures that people eat in China for a variety of reasons that I wouldn’t eat for any reason. I think that’s fine. I don’t think acknowledging that fact is a racist move. Characterizing that behavior as “savage,” though, I do think is problamatic.

I also didn’t think all the violence, disorder, and general disarray in District 9 said anything bad about the aliens, or about their proportedly real-life counterparts, Black people. Violence, disorder, and general disarray is what happens to communities in poverty. Have you ever been to Compton? When there are no schools, no way for people to do anything else with their lives, no food, no shelter, no stable family unit, what do you think is going to happen? Not camp fire sing-a-longs, that’s for sure. When van der Merwe was hiding out in District 9, he did some pretty nasty things, too. He ate the pig’s head. He ate the cat food. It was gross. But I thought it was pretty clear that his behavior was a factor of his enviornment. He couldn’t work for money, couldn’t use money to buy anything tasty, he had to eat, so he ate what he could find.

I don’t think the conditions in District 9 was offering a commentary on the nature or behavior of the aliens, but, I thought, on the nature and behavior of the humans. After the alien spaceship appeared over Johannesburg, the government just rounded them up and fenced them off from the rest of the city. The aliens weren’t given food, shelter, the means to become productive members of society, any kind of infrastructure. Any kind of anything, really, that could help them build strong communities, or a good life. The movie was saying that aliens/people don’t turn into violent criminals – the wrong social and political policies make them into violence criminals.

Over all, I didn’t get an anti-alien vibe AT ALL from this movie. In the end, everyone working against Christopher and the aliens got their asses blown up. The crazy Army/military guy, the Nigerian gangbangers, the old witch doctor who was trying to eat Wikus van der Merwe’s arm to get his magical alien powers, they got all owned. And you, as the audience member, got to know the aliens through the eyes of an average, presumably white citizen of Johannesburg: first, as creatures to be afraid of, and then, as creatures to root for.

– Shiyuan

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Darcy permalink
    20 September 2009 1:10 pm

    You obviously didn’t read her post very carefully. She specifically said that she was okay with the fact that the aliens are unlikeable. (Well, she said that the implications sort of bothered her, but that she wasn’t going to hold it up as an example of the movie being “racist” because it wasn’t a straightforward allegory. I don’t agree that the characterization of the aliens is problematic, but that wasn’t the main point of her post at all, anyway.)

    She said she was okay with the fact that the black characters do bad things.

    Her problem was with the fact that the white people do bad things that are logical (wanting to experiment on Wikus), and the black people do bad things that are ridiculous (wanting to eat Wikus’s arm).

    I like District 9 too. I didn’t really think about whether it was racist while I was watching it. When I read her post, I thought, “oh, that’s true, it’s too bad that the movie has that flaw.” You on the other hand felt the need to build up a giant strawman of the things she supposedly thinks about District 9, just because you like the movie a lot! You can like something that has something wrong with it.

  2. Nigerian-American permalink
    20 September 2009 10:49 am

    “I do remember reading lore about the practice of cannibalism as a means of gaining their opponents’ powers, and I think that was what the filmmakers were going for in that little subplot with the Nigerian gangsters, more of a tribal thing rather than to portray them as just savages.”

    @Brian – agreed. And imagine us (in the U.S.) being defined by a random article about some extremist faction of our society and solely in those terms. Imagine, if this was a consistent portrayal about our society. Imagine if there was unequal access to the mainstream public to effectively counter the portrayal. Imagine if that portrayal harkened to dehumanizing images and beliefs about us that were liberally bandied about for decades at the dawn of cinema. And imagine if it wasn’t merely stereotyping of the mafia etc. variety but a complete bastardization of us. We would have a big problem attributing that to artistic license.

  3. Nigerian-American permalink
    20 September 2009 10:33 am

    Dear Author,

    with all due respect, I think there are issues in this movie that you fail to take into account, perhaps because they don’t resonate with you or cannot.

    “Black people don’t do bad things in real life, therefore, Black people doing bad things in the movies = racism.”
    I don’t think this reflects where Stamp was going. You conflate her statement about Black Africans with Black people generally. This distinction is important because this movie rehashes a standard harmful, irresponsible meme involving black africans generally, i.e. the degenerate savage. Sure, white people are also monsters in the movie, but they are calculating, not mindless savages. Another important point is, a white viewer has a frame of reference regarding these characters – certainly, these people are divergent from the white norm. The same viewer has NO frame of reference for Africans. This is illustrated by commentary to this issue in various blogs. I think if you realized how way off the assumption that Nigerians could be cannibals is, it would jar you more. Imagine U.S. citizens always portrayed as unthinking cannibals movie after movie. Only if one assumes its a plausible plot line for a Nigerian, will one not find it offensive.

    “There are areas of the world where people eat animals that we, here in the United States, wouldn’t eat.”

    Fine, other ANIMALS. But do you think it is reasonable to eat human flesh? You don’t. Nigerian’s dont think so, either. That’s the point being made…get out of your head this notion of the place as the exotic other. The human reasoning process would suggest you don’t eat another human being. The brains of the “pour souls” in Nigeria work the same way as well, believe it or not.

    • Shiyuan permalink*
      20 September 2009 10:37 am

      Your right, of course. My position on District 9 has changed since I wrote this post. I was too hasty in forming my opinions. I will modify this post to reflect what I am thinking now.

    • 4 October 2009 2:36 pm

      why this is such a sensative case is not because of a false depiction of Nigerians but because Nigerian government have had PR hell with their constitution regarding laws on cannibalism, especially as the deaths/funeral rites of Alaiyeluwa Oba Sunday Funso Adeolu and the limbless body of an African occured in London! That gangsters, drugged soldiers etc commit cannibalism is indisputable, but it is obviously an unthinkable act to the overwhelming majority of West Africans.
      Being aware of this fact did not make me feel like these people were depicted wrongly in the film, howewever I can see why it is unhelpful to any cause that this certain aspect of West African life has been funnelled and solely focused on in a major film.

  4. shortnmorose permalink
    8 September 2009 1:17 pm

    i thought about the movie a lot because while it’s exciting to have a movie do so much work against apartheid/racism, etc. it doesn’t explicitly do or say anything. for those of us constantly thinking about immigration, apartheid, or japanese internment (which hardly anyone thinks of comparing the film to), we see all the connections right away. but for those that don’t, for the politically apathetic, it’s just a good movie. i saw it with my mother and i went on and on about how brilliantly the script was written and the potential the movie had in educating or challenging assumptions but the next day, she told me a coworker at work just thought it was a great alien movie. didn’t think of any correlation to history or real life. just a movie. so while i understand we can never rely solely on media to educate, it was a little disappointing to watch it do so much work and know that it wouldn’t hit everyone. i guess you can’t hit everyone buti wish such a well-packaged film could.

    • Shiyuan permalink*
      8 September 2009 2:20 pm

      I thought it was a really great, thought provoking movie. When I saw the Racialicious article denouncing it as racist & encouraging people not to watch it, I got mad, responded via the above, and I found myself dragged into this “is District 9 racist or not” argument. I wish I had thought things through before I so eagerly came to the defense of the movie because my “it’s definitely not racist position,” which I took because I thought the movie had a lot of good things to say about race & race relations, forced me to dismiss critiques of the movie in a way that I think isn’t productive.

      I shouldn’t have said Nicole Stamp is completing out of left field, and all her arguments are bad & wrong & are not instantiated by facts. While I still maintain that the aliens were NOT portrayed negatively, I can see where she’s coming from, and I think its okay to be made uncomfortable by some of the representations of Black people. What I should have done is to ask, instead, “what stories about race & race relations does this movie successfully tell?” This movie tells a really interesting & different story about colonialism than I’ve heard before. I wish I had written this post about my thoughts on that instead of a unilateral defense of District 9’s anti-racism-ness.

  5. Stephan permalink
    2 September 2009 7:24 pm

    Another interesting blog post on District 9 (from a Swarthmore professor): http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/2009/09/02/district-9/

    • 3 September 2009 3:17 pm

      I read it & I think it’s so good. Will post a response tonight. He’s gotten me to reconsider some of my points.

  6. 31 August 2009 2:18 am

    I agree with what you’re saying. I thought the Racialicious article oversimplified the analogy of aliens = black South Africans (although they did make great points regarding other points of the film).

    I do remember reading lore about the practice of cannibalism as a means of gaining their opponents’ powers, and I think that was what the filmmakers were going for in that little subplot with the Nigerian gangsters, more of a tribal thing rather than to portray them as just savages.

    We were just WAITING for the evil alien-hating white characters to get blown up. For people who saw this in theaters: tell me if this isn’t true.

    Haha, word. The baddies getting owned was very satisfying.

    • Shiyuan permalink*
      31 August 2009 11:01 am

      Alright, I can see the problem with the cannibalism/tribal angle.

  7. 27 August 2009 10:50 am

    i was happy to browse through your blog Shiyuan! insightful thoughts. i agree w/ the Glamore entry. you should subscribe to BITCH magazine to shut your friends up. heh.

    i really have issues w/ this racialicious article on high suicide/depression rates in AA women: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090817190650.htm.

    it’s not that i don’t like the results, just that the findings are pooring analyzed. it could be that AA women are more contemplative so suicide crosses their minds. also contemplation does NOT equal committing suicide. as a psych major, my mind hurts when i consider the limitation in this study…

    keep up the good blogging!

    xx,
    Bo

    • Shiyuan permalink*
      28 August 2009 4:05 pm

      Thanks! Yeah, I saw that article about AA women & suicide.

      Love this quote: “It is unclear why Asian-Americans who were born in the United States have higher rates of thinking about and attempting suicide,” said Aileen Duldulao, a UW doctoral student in social work and lead author of the study.

      Gee, wonder why. Gawd. I’m glad, though, that there is literature out there that challenges the notion that a lot of Americans hold about AAs being unusually well adjusted, compared to other minority groups. I know a lot of AA women who have struggled w/depression. Maybe they didn’t resorted to suicide, but some of them have dropped out of school, which you know is like suicide to an AA person. (Just kidding, but only kind of. My parents would kill me if I had dropped out of college. Killed. Massacred.)

  8. 27 August 2009 8:28 am

    T la, she’s not saying that stereotypes don’t exist, or that stereotypes aren’t harmful, she’s saying that District 9 has some genuinely interesting racially-charged commentary that isn’t just “black people are scary, and so are aliens”.

    Don’t mistake that for a complete denial of racism or stereotyping.

  9. T la permalink
    27 August 2009 7:51 am

    100% agree with every point you have.
    In my opinion, anyone that took the portrayal of the aliens and Nigerians as racial stereotypes are probably the people that believe in stereotypes in the first place.

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  1. A Retraction & Clarification on District 9 Review « torrent magazine

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