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A Retraction & Clarification on District 9 Review

6 October 2009
tags: ,
Sad Homesick Alien

Sad Homesick Alien

I get more hate for the “District 9 Not Racist [Alternative Alternative Perspective]” article  than any other article.

I’d like to address some of the comments we’ve received, and offer a more nuanced read of the movie than I had previously presented.

How This All Started

Walking out of the theater, I thought District 9  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 quickly found myself dragged into this “is District 9 racist or not” argument, which in retrospect, was exactly the wrong question to ask. Apologies to all of you – I should have thought things through before I so eagerly came to the defense of this 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 isn’t productive.

I shouldn’t have implied that Nicole Stamp at Pageslap was completely out of left field in her article, and all her arguments are bad & wrong & not instantiated by facts. While I maintain that the portrayal of the aliens are indicative of good, rather than bad, politics, I can see where Stamp (& all you Stamp supporters) are coming from. I recognize that the representations of African people in District 9 were not favorable, and they make me uncomfortable, as well. But the Nigerian gangsters’ cannibal ways, however gruesome, weren’t what I was thinking about as I walked out of the theater that day, and in the subsequent months as I’ve engaged with all of you in this conversation. As anti-racist cultural critics, we’ve got to have more to say about a cultural artifact than “oh, that’s racist.” It feels good to point fingers – I know that. I like lobbing accusations of racism as much as the next liberal blogger.  But that only gets us so far – especially when there are so many other things to say about District 9.

Okay, So?

In the original article, the question I should have addressed was:  “What stories about race & race relations does this movie tell?”

What District 9 Gets Right

1) The format of the movie. The documentary framework allows the audience to see the aliens through the perspective of an average, presumably white Johannesburg resident. First, they seem scary & gross. They eat things that don’t seem edible to us. They steal & destroy property. Then, as you are more exposed to the conditions of District 9,  the government policies that regulate alien life, and the incredibly unlikeable people working to advance the government’s agenda, like the main character, Wikus van der Merwe, you start to get the sense that things are more complicated that you originally believed. Then, through the stories of Christopher & his cute alien kid, you come to understand that what you thought was scary & gross were the acts of creatures trying their best to adjust to life on Earth.

At the end, you find yourself identifying with the alien refugees & really, intensely hating all the white people. Must have been the cute kid. Was I the only one that wanted to take Christopher’s kid  home with me & raise him in my closet?

2) The squalor & destitution in District 9. I don’t think the crappy conditions of District 9 was meant to say something unflattering about Nigeria(ns), or Africans, or the continent of Africa. It seemed like an honest representation of what poverty looks like. If you’ve ever been somewhere with real poverty, like rural China, you’ll know that to be true. Rather, it seemed like a pretty damning critique of the white people in the movie, namely the government officials who rounded the aliens up & deposited them in a fenced off area without any resources & support.

Without food, shelter, the means to provide for themselves, the aliens did whatever anybody would do in that situation – their best to make it. I thought the director was making the point that people/aliens aren’t born violent criminals – bad social policy makes people into violent criminals. This is the argument that prison activists have been making since the 1970s – we’re wrong to punish black & brown folks with long prison sentences instead of addressing the social conditions that encouraged their criminal activities in the first place.

3) The neat colonial story. I’m not going to go in-depth here because other people have done it better, but District 9 is not your typical colonial story. Although Wikus van der Merwe is going “into the jungle,” as it were, his role in the movie is not to illustrate the savageness of the aliens, but rather the savageness of the other white characters. Namely, the government wackos who want to experiment on him, his wife who has basically turned against him, & the media & greater white society for being complicit in the mistreatment of the aliens.

Even after your comment hate, and email hate, and Twitter hate, I still really like this movie. The more I think about it, the more I appreciate how well thought out & well crafted District 9 is. That, I do not take back.

– Shiyuan

One Comment leave one →
  1. Suzanne permalink
    23 January 2010 6:59 pm

    Thanks for this well thought-out retraction. What I don’t quite understand is why people seem to boil this down to an argument whether the portrayal of black Africans in the movie is racist or not. It’s not. The portrayal of Nigerians is – or at least it is, from what I understand, in a context where Nigerians are ALWAYS portrayed negatively.

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