Back in December I published a review of/essay on Avatar which received attention as viewers discussed the racial and power dynamic subtexts to the film. One article from io9, entitled “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar,” took a slightly different direction than my reading. The article’s discussion of films and white guilt mentions several films, including District 9. But they missed an important piece of the film.
Most white guilt fantasy films include a white male confronted with an alien “other.” Over time, the main character realizes that the “other” isn’t horrific, but human (Native Americans in Dances With Wolves) or even what humans should be (Na’vi in Avatar, although really, they’re just Native Americans in blue drag). Recognizing the more awesome nature of the “other,” the protagonist defects and fights his own tribe.
In District 9, our white male lead is Wikus, a mid-level bureaucrat for Multinational United (MNU). He is in charge of re-locating the “prawns”–ugly insectoid aliens who landed in Johannesburg years ago, and who are now being relocated to a “better” refugee camps. Here’s our white culture and our alien “other.”
Wikus stumbles across an alien chemical that physically changes him into one of the prawns. Once MNU finds out, they use him to test alien weaponry (they’ve been trying to test these weapons, but they’re activated by alien touch only) and his father-in-law tells the scientists to cut him up. Wikus escapes and uses cunning and cowardice to try to get a cure from one of the prawns, Christopher. When Christopher is about to be killed by an MNU mercenary, Wikus finally gets around to doing something noble.
Now, this little synopsis reveals a couple of departures from the other white guilt films. First, the protagonist does not choose to be a part of the “other” culture. Instead, it is forced upon him and he spends the entire film trying to reverse it. The protagonist’s attitude toward the “other” is entirely negative; he detests them and what he is becoming. There is no “noble savage.”
Further, the film doesn’t simply cast the white MNU officials and mercenaries as the beasts and the prawns as passive victims; the film highlights Nigerians who operate a blackmarket trade with the prawns. This aspect of the film (showing black and white characters in a bad light) goes a long way toward trampling common cliches. In this film, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white–both sides exploit the prawns. The message is that Evil knows no race–it knows humanity.
Ultimately, what makes the film damn good is Wikus. At the beginning of the film he’s all PR smiles, the Michael Scott of refugee camp relations. We see him, unruffled, setting fire to prawn eggs and getting signatures from prawns who don’t understand the re-location papers–it’s all cool for Wikus. However, mid-way through the film he’s tired and tattered. After his company has tried to kill him Wikus is willing to call the new camps what they are : “They’re concentration camps,” he says with a sigh. In transforming physically, he’s had to re-evaluate himself internally.
Still, the film doesn’t show us a smooth trajectory of redemption–the characterization is more complex than that and remains ambivalent. Wikus ends up stealing Christopher’s ship, but gets shot down by a South African mercenary. He runs away to avoid being killed, leaving Christopher to be beaten by the merc.
Before Christopher is killed, Wikus finally does something selfless and returns to save him (one might argue that he realizes that he needs Christopher to change back, but during that scene going back meant a death sentence). Now, this is a bit Hollywood cliche, last minute saves and all, but the bigger picture is this:
Wikus realizes that his dislike for the prawns does not excuse his own cowardice.
This realization is a more mature, thought provoking message than the white guilt fantasy films we regularly see. In other white guilt fantasy films, like Dances With Wolves, and Avatar, one side is humanized at the expense of the other.
For example, in Dances With Wolves we see the skinned and mutilated remains of buffalo poached by white men, placed in contrast with the Native Americans’ conscientious usage of the entire animal. When John Dunbar is captured, his former (white) military comrades are depicted as ugly, savage, uneducated men, juxtaposed with characterizations of the Native Americans as intelligent, gentle people. So when Dunbar is saved by his new Native American brothers, we root for the killing of the white men. What was once our tribe is now the “other;” and through this shifting “otherness,” murder/revenge become morally acceptable.
In some ways District 9 does this: most of the humans, Nigerian or South African, are “bad,” and the prawns are “good” because we empathize with their victimhood. But the film doesn’t pit one human culture against another human culture, it condemns humanity. And it does so, not only through Nigerians (usually seen as victims in the real world) and MNU (whites) but through the main character himself. Yes, District 9 is talking about apartheid, but by having aliens as the oppressed we are allowed to look at the ugliness of humanity and not make it exclusive to one race.*
This may sound like splitting hairs, but this distinction is what makes District 9 a great film, not just another romp through well worn cliches.
*this is not to say whites in South Africa didn’t do evil things, just that we need to acknowledge this isn’t exclusive to one group; power and greed affect us all the same way