Monday, August 24, 2009

Is District 9 Racist?

I haven't spoken much about it here, but I have updated on Facebook a few times about how much I really, really liked the latest sci-fi sleeper hit, District 9. Mostly because I just didn't feel like writing yet another movie review where I gush and gush about how great a film it is.

It's come to my surprise, however, that there's a little bit of backlash over what many feel to be highly racists overtones to the film. Not to mention some little discrepancies that may or may not be plot holes.

Which completely knocked me for a loop. Well, okay, not completely. Some of the concerns I do happen to agree with, but the biggest complaint I happen to TOTALLY disagree with. I'll get to that in a minute.

Super cool and wonderful SF writer, Nnendi Okorafor, wrote an interesting opinion piece over on her FB account detailing her own disappointment with the movie, and she even listed ten specific bullet points revealing her concerns. Most, though not all, of the points dealt with the sensitive race issue, and whether or not the director, Neill Blomkamp, was ignorant or deliberate in his portrayal of South Africa and its denizens.

I was going to link to the piece, but then I realized that Ms. Okorafor's FB account is private, so I don't feel comfortable linking or even copying & pasting her excellent views here. I'll just generalize some of her concerns, which also happen to be shared by a few other SF writers I admire, like Tobias Buckell for one.

In other words, I'm going to address four of the more common complaints directed at the movie, some of which I honestly feel the offended are being a little unfair in their attacks over, and others which I think are missing the mark. Suffice to say there are major *SPOILERS* in effect down below. So don't read if you haven't seen the film yet. And definitely don't comment. There's nothing I hate more than people commenting on a movie they haven't even seen for themselves.

Cool? Okay.

1. The Prawns are too stupid and clumsy to be an advanced alien race. Are they stand-ins for negative stereotypes aimed at blacks?

In my opinion: No! Now, yes, I'm not black so obviously I can't possibly see the issue from a black man's (or woman's) perspective. But I think a lot of critics are missing a key point about the plot. To wit, the Prawns are worker bees. Or ants. Or whatever insect comparison you want to use. While not specifically mentioned in the movie, I myself had already formed the conclusion that these aliens obviously work on the hive mind conceit. Which is to say, a higher intelligent "queen" directs the movements and the work flow of the worker and soldier entities under her command. In the insect world, these entities are almost entirely male, and they are generally considered to be one-track minded and in complete service to the queen. When the queen dies, the workers go into frenzy and run about directionless and misguided until another queen can replace the missing or dead one.

In science-fiction, this conceit is often taken further to the point of giving the "queen" telepathic control over her subjects, which is what Blomkamp was doing with his aliens.

How do I know? Because he said so himself on the District 9 panel at ComicCon. I can't remember his words verbatim, but it was something to the point that the ship which comes to rest above JoBurg was a mining ship that ran into trouble when the queen Prawn died and left the worker Prawns with no way of operating the technology on the ship. The fact that the one Prawn, Chris, was intelligent is due to happenstance of Prawn physiology which, in the absence of the Queen for an extended period of time, grants one worker Prawn sufficient intelligence over time to assume temporary leadership until a new Queen can take over.

This is how I remember hearing the explanation go. I could be wrong. There were a lot of vidcasts I watched coming out of ComicCon, and at the time I was trying to keep the details of District 9 from being spoiled to me. But even without this I got the impression from the movie that the Prawns were like worker ants who had lost their direction and "leader." Except, I thought that Chris was part of the "royal family", so to speak, and that this was why he and his son alone were intelligent. I kinda like my version better, as the assisted intelligence route kinda weakens his heroism, I feel. I'd rather Chris was naturally that intelligent, and that it was due to his genetic relationship to the actual Queen.

Either way, the Prawns are imbeciles for a reason. With a Queen, they are guided, purposeful, and able to use their technology. Without the Queen, they apparently can't tell their asses from their elbows!

2. If this takes place in South Africa, why are all the main human roles white?

First of all, not all the roles were given to white people. I personally really liked the guy that was supposed to be Wikus's replacement. I forget his name, but he was the poor sap that couldn't find a flak vest. He not only survives District 9, but in fact does take over Wikus's position. You see him being interviewed later on in the mockumentary within the movie. There's also the MNU merc/enforcer who escorts Wikus when he goes to serve eviction notices. I also liked this guy, and would have liked to see more of him in action.

But, that being said: Yes, I agree with this statement. D9 really *is* shockingly devoid of, you know, black people. It was indeed one of my chief complaints with the film.

But here's the thing: this is the way movies are sold these days. I'm not trying to make excuses here. I place the blame for this squarely at Blomkamp's feet, for he is the director after all. A sci-fi movie taking place in South Africa really shouldn't be so pasty white. It's embarrassing!

But let's not pretend we don't know that this goes on in Hollywood. According to the big wigs, NOBODY wants to see movies with primarily black people in them. Not unless the movies are gangsta movies, or hood-related in some way. It's sad, and it makes me very angry. I hate it! I hate when they pull out the box office numbers as proof, yet conveniently fail to point out that the reason movies with strong black casts do so poorly at the B.O. is because Hollywood never gives the big blockbuster movies over to this kind of casting. This is a vicious circle that looks to have no end in sight. Will Smith can only do so much, and even then they pair him with a white chick just to be on the safe side.

All this is to say that I can see why District 9 has so many white people in it, even while disagreeing with the decision. Again, this does not excuse the filmmaker(s). It's a legitimate beef, but one I've been having for years now, especially in sci-fi movies.

3. The vial of black goo can change a human to an alien? What a ridiculous plot hole!

I admit, this is a bit hard to swallow. But such is the nature of plot devices also known as "maguffins." They don't always make a lot of sense, maguffins, and are really there to serve as linchpins to the plot. To give the story something to revolve around, in other words.

And that's what this is.

But, actually--and to my surprise--there is, in fact, a quasi explanation for this in the movie. It was established fairly early on that the Prawns' technology revolves around a much different basic concept than our own human technology. And that is, that their tech is all operated on a biological level. Specifically the genetic level. Knowing this, is it really such a stretch that the *FUEL* to power this tech should be bio-genetically based as well? And not just any genes, but native Prawn genes at that? After all, it did take 20 years just to produce one vial. Sounds rather complicated, as befitting something that can rewrite an organism's genetic code.

While I do snicker at the extent of change such a substance can realistically wrought inside a human body (I mean, Wikus tuned into an EXACT copy of a Prawn, for crying out loud!), the bad science in this respect was at least built upon the established conceit that the alien tech is almost close to being alive. And so, therefore, if a human were to be contaminated by said tech, its probably going to do some nasty damage to him/her on the genetic level.

In a sci-fi novel, you would have to have a scene where this is explained in more detail of course. But in an action movie, we're lucky we got *any* set-up at all.

4. The Nigerian Factor.

Okay, this is the big bad of all the complaints levelled at this film. And the one which I disagree the most with the complainers over. Here's my rather long take:

The Nigerian gangsters in the movie are barbaric, superstitious, idiotic, and backwards.

And I say to this: no duh?

These are fucking GANGSTERS, people! WTF? Never once did I sit there and think: well, damn, those Nigerians sure are a stupid bunch of people.


What I said was: damn, gangsters are so damn ignorant! They think they can solve everything with guns and violence.

And I would wager that no other intelligent people watching this movie left thinking that they better hide their children from their Nigerian neighbors. Not unless those neighbors just happen to be gang members, too.

I understand why some people (and not all of them black) are quick to take offense to this. But my thing is, you better then take offense at EVERY movie out there not specifically about gangsters but where gangs are secondary or supporting villains. How many movies have you seen depicting Italian, Irish, Mexican, or African American gangsters as ridiculously base and superstitious? I mean, to the point of caricature? I'm not going to sit here and list them all, but whenever a gang or ganglord is the petty villain, you're guaranteed to have them depicted as ultimate losers.

The exceptions to these are films specifically about gangsters. The ones where the gang leader IS the hero. Like the Godfather movies, or Gangs of New York, or Scarface, or New Jack City. In these movies, the gangsters are shown as successful and intelligent. Sometimes more intelligent than the cops, even. But in every other movie where gangs are not the focus, they are always portrayed in broad strokes, often taking in the very worst stereotypes of a particular ethnic group. Not because the movie makers are being racists (okay, not always), but because some stereotypes are based on reality perpetuated by a very, very small minority within said group.

So take the Nigerian gangsters in District 9. Clearly the scum of the earth, and guided by the most ignorant superstitions. But, hey, guess what? Ritual dismemberment DOES go on in sub-Saharan Africa. Every once in a blue moon I'll read an article in the New York Times about how some little boy or girl was kidnapped, or a man killed, so that bush doctors could grind their bones into a tea to help cure everything from a common cold to AIDS. It doesn't happen every day, no. But it does happen. From my own reading, it seems to happen in Nigeria, Tanzania and the Congo region, or pretty much any place where lawlessness runs rampant in Africa and the government is not in control of the regional warlords.

So why shouldn't this ONE man in District 9 who happens to lead a piss-poor ragtag group of imbeciles in his gang NOT be superstitious? Especially when that superstition fuels his own irrational greed and belief that he will become some super-powerful warlord and take over the world? This guys is not Vito Corleone--he's fucking BONKERS! He's not some criminal mastermind. Why do you think he's holed up in District 9 leeching off a bunch of dumb alien refugees? Probably because he was too ass backwards to survive among the *real* criminal elements in JoBurg.

Being that she's Nigerian, I understand why Nnendi Okorafor and her sisters were the most offended by this. If I were Nigerian, I would be too! But offended in the same way I would be if I read the newspaper about a real life Nigerian gangster raping and dismembering a 4 year old girl so that her body parts could be used in a recipe for curing Malaria. Hint: do a Google search of "Ritual Child Killing in Nigeria," and see what comes up. But be forewarned.

Now, does this prove that all Nigerians are child-killers and cannibals? Hell no! Anyone who would think that needs to be smacked. All countries have elements within the populace that are fringe and criminal, and who operate under practices abhorred by the good law-abiding citizens of that country.

When I saw this in District 9, I thought to myself: Oh, looks like Neill Blomkamp was reading the newspaper. Because, this is exactly where I learned about this practice. Just because it's abhorrent does not mean it's not true, somewhere someplace. And not practiced by the majority--or not even the minority--but by a very select few deranged individuals at that.

And that's what this gang leader was in the movie. A deranged INDIVIDUAL with his own pet witch doctor and who's followers are too scared to oppose him. The portrayal was overdone a tad, sure, for dramatic effect . . . but I strongly believe that it was not the director's attempt to disparage an entire nationality here. If not Nigerians, then who? South Africans? Botswanians? Sudanese? If the gang leader, Obasanjo, were any one of these nationalities (albeit with a different personal name), would his portrayal be any less offensive?

The movie needed a dumb villain cannibal to counter the somewhat smarter (or at least, better financed) *real* villain cannibal in the movie-- the MNU. You know, the organization that was pretending to help the Prawns, but was in fact herding them into pens and dissecting them back in underground labs to steal their secret "power." Oh yeah, that group.

This is why I give Neill Blomkamp credit. He portrayed a very select group of Nigerian fringe elements as superstitious cannibals, yes. But the message was that the *real* evil is in the form of white-bread "humanitarian" groups that are really in Africa to exploit and bleed the victims dry before moving on to another location.

And I don't hear anyone protesting this portrayal, do you?

Anyway, this blog entry has gone on long enough. I thought that the movie was great, when I don't read too much into it. Which is what I keep reminding myself not to do when it comes to action movies, sci-fi themed or otherwise. I'm sure I'll make some people angry, but I've said my peace and so -- have at me!


  1. i personally dgree with u apart from the nigerian part..yes they are gangstars, yes gangsters act like that,yes other counties like ireland ,mexico,italy etc...but never once has the name of the former president of those countries been is OUTRIGHT WRONG...the guts to do that...was appalling, disapointing... think about it..

  2. Well, the gang leader being named Obasanjo is not quite the same thing as making a direct correlation to former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo outright, but I can see your point. After all, if a movie had a Chinese terrorist who's last name was "Mao," I'd be a little irked, too.

    But as a writer myself, I give Blomkamp the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to lazy research. Although it's possible he has such a deep-seeded hatred for Nigerians that he wanted to insult the country by naming a dispicable slumlord gangster after a popular ex-president . . . I somehow doubt it. It's too obvious. I would expect a little more subtlety.

    No, I think the director and co-writer is not all that familiar with Nigeria and its people, and so went with the first authentic-sounding Nigerian name he could think of. A little more careful research would have come up with better names, true. And for that I can't excuse him.

    But, yes, you have a right to be disappointed. An arguement can certainly be made that Blomkamp is disparaging ALL Nigerians. I personally think he's not, but others can take it a different way, and rightfully so.


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