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The District 9 Racism Debate Rages On…

Looks like the District 9 race row is far from over. On Tuesday, The Guardian ran an article defending the portrayal of the Nigerian gangsters in the film, amidst the rising pressure to get an apology from the film makers. While I have my own reasons for believing the film isn’t racist – check out our review – I’m not entirely convinced by the article in question.

Prawn-rights groups were unavailable for comment...

Prawns Rights groups were unavailable for comment...

I don’t even particularly have a problem with the defense strategy that Tola Onanuga mounts (in that I think she responds quite well to the argument as she phrases it), but I think that the article addresses the wrong issue. it would seem that we are upset because the Nigerian mob is portrayed as gangsters, criminals and con men:

If District 9 really does hate Nigerians, it clearly hates its powerful, white characters even more. Objecting to Nigerians being portrayed as morally bankrupt criminals seems pointless when almost every group of characters in the film have little or no regard for the law.

It’s a valid point, and well made. It isn’t as if the Nigerian mob are the only villains in the film. However, I think that the article belittles the sensitivity over the portrayal. I doubt that many Nigerians are upset because they have been portrayed as bad guys – if that were the case every mafia movie ever would have to answer to the Italian American community. And that would be political correctness gone mad.

Films need bad guys and just because bad guys happen to fall within various ethnic or racial groups doesn’t make it particularly bad, especially if they are merely part of a larger machinery of evil and abuse:

[Blomkamp] makes it clear the Nigerians are no better or worse than their white (or alien) counterparts, creating an unsettling sort of equality among the characters.

The problem that viewers have is that the Nigerian gangs aren’t portrayed as equals. It isn’t an issue of good or evil, it’s an issue of civilised and savage. The Nigerian gangs all worship a form of voodoo, feating upon the new settlers in the belief that they will magically receive the powers. They even consider cannibalising the lead, Wikus. I realise that thematically it resonates with the other exploitation and the anti-capitalist vibe that Blomkamp has going on – MNU hopes to consume the aliens, albeit less literally.

The portrayal of these individuals resorting to eating the flesh of other sentient creatures (and even other humans) is what makes people uncomfortable. it echoes the depiction in media in the early part of the last century of the African savage eating the European settlers like the barbarians that popular culture seemed intent on believing that they were.

I can understand if this is an attempt to portray the Nigerians – and the native Africans – as victims of the still evident class structure (the only person punished at the end of the movie is black, and he doesn’t even get a bulletproof vest during the eviction process; the only people working in District 9 – even lawfully – are Africans, because it’s a job that the whites won’t do). These original inhabitants of the continent don’t get education or a chance to engage with regular culture, and are forced to crime and maybe even left to worship cannibalism, but it’s still a dangerous portrayal of any ethnic group.

I don’t think there was racist intent. I don’t think that Blomkamp should apologise. I would like to see an explanation of the racial issues involved with the film on the DVD or Bluray – not because the creators have anything to answer for, but because it’s an interesting discussion to have. I think the movie was made with the noblest of intentions, and I think it works for most of the runtime as an allegory, but race is naturally a very touchy subject (particularly in South Africa). Focusing on this is an important and interesting discussion to have in the context of the film, but I do think it’s getting blown out of proportion by these interest groups.

I don’t really believe that District 9 was racist, but I can understand what its critics see. This is one disk I will be checking out the director’s commentary for.

Not bad for a science-fiction spoof, eh?

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