Friday, October 9, 2009

fyi, I was wrong about district 9

Several weeks ago, I posted a negative review of the sci-fi alien-apartheid flick District 9. In brief, here was my take on this particular movie:

Maybe someone thought it would be a brilliant idea to combine a touching story of refugee camp residents with the excitement of an alien invasion. It turns out that whoever came up with that brilliant idea was wrong.

I'll tell you what, you guys: I'm the one who was wrong.

I stood strong on my anti-District 9 stance despite rave reviews--both online and offline--from people whose opinions I deeply respect. (Click here and here, for example, to see reviews from media scholar Henry Jenkins.) Then I read this review (warning: spoilers) by Andries du Toit, which was followed up a week later by an even more insightful set of "further thoughts" on the film.

du Toit, in this post as well as in a follow-up, picks up on the very issues that made me dislike the film. Of course, he did so much more thoughtfully than I did. My biggest problem with the movie was apparent racism in its depiction of black Africans, made more frustrating when contextualized within a movie that ostensibly wanted to problematize that very issue. Here's how du Toit, apparently a white South African living in Cape Town, explains it:

I do think that the representation of the ‘Nigerians’ is the one place in the film where the movie falters in its ability to unpick the workings of racist ideology. Because, for all of these interesting complexities, the reality is that the movie does not obviously withdraw or complicate its apparent endorsement of the African stereotypes. There are ironies and complexities – but they are evident only to a fairly sensitive and conscious viewer. In fact, the film actively pushes these complexities in side. The crucial flaw, in fact, lies lies precisely in this: it relies for its narrative drive, for its satisfaction of the ‘adventure’, on the antagonism against (and the extermination of) the ‘Nigerians’. So even though the real villains are all white, and even though the movie subtly mocks xenophobic discourse, many audiences will no doubt identify with this ‘othering’, and will cheer when Wikus’s alien exoskeleton kills them all so picturesquely.

With that one caveat, however, du Toit finds much to value in District 9. He calls it

the best movie I have yet seen about South Africa – and specifically, one of the most penetrating, disconcerting and subversive meditations on the nature of racism and repression in the post-colonial world. District 9 is fresh and transgressive, hilariously funny and absolutely horrifying: brutal, sly, streetwise and in your face. It’s not a voice from the ghetto – it is, completely and incontrovertibly, a white voice – but is a voice from the postcolonial periphery; a voice speaking harshly, grittily and urgently about the surrealism of racism and the confluence of violence and normality here at the edges of the West’s old empire.

du Toit has convinced me when nobody else could. Therefore, I strongly recommend you disregard my negative review and go see the movie. Wait until you get home to read du Toit's review--it contains spoilers--but do read it. It's perhaps the smartest recent film review I've seen anywhere, online or off.


Kevin Makice said...

Still not convinced.

I don't doubt the filmmaker's inspiration and intended political statement. I do doubt the effectiveness of the movie to make that commentary effectively and in a way that doesn't resort to sensationalized violence. The movie, though, needed the creative explanation and swell of metaphorical retelling to make the themes work. If anything, District 9 succeeds only in becoming a social object for the real-world issues.

If we are indeed mapping social situations in South Africa to an alien refugee camp, then the writers are also claiming there is a general apathy and lack of community by the oppressed, as well. It takes 20 years for anyone in the alien camp to come close to a plan to leave Earth? Plausible to think that it took that long to squeeze enough black goop out of debris to power the shuttle's return, perhaps. But that there was an apparent lack of any Alien leadership or broader understanding that this was a possibility, that essentially 3 creatures were the sole recovery effort? Or that an alien race with clearly superior technology and the ability to achieve interstellar space flight would not attract the international attention of anthropologists capable of parsing and preserving the culture? That's where it all breaks down, including the metaphor. We may fear the unknown—and there is no bigger unknown than creatures from another planet—but our implicit assumptions will be that such creatures hold power, and that is what we fear. That is not the case with any colonization mindset.

ithiliana said...

Unfortunately, neither of the links will come up on my browser (I don't even get an error message--just a constant "loading" and then a blank screen). I'll check back tomorrow, but I doubt I'll find much to change my mind based on the quotes you provide.

I reviewed the film here ( Spoiler warning.

As an American, I cannot say how well the film reflects South Africa (I'd want to read a lot more comments by a lot more diverse group of South Africans, including women of color). But as a film viewer, I can say that the film's attempt to subvert racisms fails because of its own racisms--and some absolutely bizarrely clumsy writing/plotting/characterization. It's also a very masculinized/male voice (even if the male protagonist is presented as not heroic male)--and a postcolonial voice that excludes women's voices and agencies is not one I'm particularly interested in spending much time with.

Jenna McWilliams said...

ok, what do you do when people you respect tell you that you were right in the first place? Do you post ANOTHER post saying "okay, I was wrong when I said I was wrong"? Because that's what I think is going on here.

ithiliana said...

Well, I'm not sure either Kevin or I are using the terminology of "wrong" or "right." I'm not sure I buy that there are right or wrong interpretations of any text (*adjusts post-modern with a small p cap*).

While I'm not trying to speak for Kevin, I notice that he, as well as I, seem to start by saying "I'm not convinced" by the argument(s) you're saying convinced you that YOU were wrong. And from what you say here, it sounds as if a large part of your response is connected to you knowing/respecting the person making the argument. This puts us squarely into reader response territory, and we probably need to try to separate arguments from person making argument. I don't know du Toit; I did acknowledge I couldn't get to the whole posts, and was only reacting to the parts you quoted. I also tried to say that him apparently being a "white South African" did not in fact carry much weight with me (in terms of ethos)--I'd be much more interested to know what black South Africans might say (which I assume will probably be a range of responses) rather than another white guy (and you did bring up his ethnicity and nationality in your post, so it becomes a part of your argument).

The majority of reviews by men I've seen are very positive (and most of those men seemed to be white). The discussion on my LJ implies that a number of women of color are not as positive about it (and the one woman whose positive review I've read seemed to be more or less "thank goodness it's not a typical American buddy hero movie"--well, it's not, but that doesn't guarantee anything that good--she's not American, although I forget her nationalisty). Several women friends (white) are enthusiastic about the film, but focus on other issues than race; I respect them, but their appreciation for the film in no way changes my response (they are reading entirely different things in the text).

The review by du Toit made you rethink your response to the film--and that's perfectly legitimate.

But it's also legitimate that other viewers do not respond the same way. I don't really see it as a question of right or wrong: a review or essay can make us see things in a text we didn't originally see, and we can come to another response. It's happened to me although not in this case.

Sean said...

I think this movie is both hugely enjoyable and politically to-the-point. I'd just like to add to the thoughtful post and comments that I think District 9 owes much to the peerless Battlestar Galactica in how it incorporates contemporary socio-political issues into a sci-fi narrative. (Important qualification: BSG redefines sci-fi in a filmed narrative but sci-fi prose writers have been doing great work with these kinds of issues for decades). District 9 is a child of Battlestar in this respect, and I look forward to seeing a more intelligent breed of sci-fi now that we have a tv series and a movie that have raised the bar way high. #nomorestarwarsprequelsplease

The Rush Blog said...

If the aliens were supposed to be a metaphor for black South Africans during apartheid, it doesn't work for me. The South Africans were natives to their country. The aliens were visitors. What was the director trying to say? That the black South Africans should have been considered as visitors? How did the aliens' mother ship remain above Johannesburg for nearly three decades without the power module beneath Christopher's shack? The Nigerian females' sexual encounters with the aliens are regarded in a negative light. Considering that the aliens ARE supposed to be a metaphor of black South Africans, does this viewpoint against alien/human sex supposed to be a metaphor for the director's views on interracial relationships?


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