District 9 (2009)

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenwriters: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Adapted from: Alive in Joburg
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Vaness Haywood, Mandla Gaduka, Eugene Wanangwa Khumbanyiwa, Louis Minnaar
Nominations: Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Visual Effects

The first time I saw District 9 I thought it was an important and powerful film.  I was disappointed, however, that it failed to maintain its documentary-style approach.  (For found-footage films—which District 9 is definitely related to—there are two things that will always, always make me like them less: non-diegetic music and scenes that are shot from a third-person perspective, i.e., a typical narrative movie.)  That didn’t detract from the film’s quality for me, but it was distracting that the film pretty much just abandoned such an interesting conceit.  Re-watching it for this post, though, I was more approving of how the narrative was constructed.  It’s best to view the documentary scenes as more of a framing device instead of a part of the narrative proper.  Watching the film’s impetus, the short Alive in Joburg (Neill Blomkamp, 2006), helps to take that point-of-view and is well worth the 6-minute-30-second runtime.

District 9 is a historic Best Picture nominee for a number of reasons.  Along with Avatar (James Cameron), it marked the first time two science fiction films were nominated for Best Picture; also with Avatar, it was the 3rd/4th Best Picture nominee to feature aliens (3rd if you go by release date, 4th if you go with the alphabetical listing of nominees), following Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982).  After Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982), it was the second BP nominee to be set in South Africa, and the first to be wholly set in the country.  It was also the first BP nominee to predominantly use a documentary filming technique.

Above all, though, it was the first BP nominee to address apartheid in South Africa.  Other BP nominees, of course, had addressed race themes long before District 9 came along, but District 9 just might be one of the best of the bunch.  Using science fiction allows for more leeway when telling stories about contemporary, real-life issues, because of the separateness of the genre’s world-building.  The stories become allegorical in science fiction, often more palpable for larger audiences.  Rod Serling, creator of and writer of 92 of 156 episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), exploited that “loophole” with much of his writing, saying, “Social commentary can go into science fiction that no one would dare try to say straight.” 

What District 9 shows us that usually gets ignored with films exploring race issues is the apathetic follower of racist ideas.  For all intents and purposes, Wikus doesn’t actually hate or even dislike the Prawns.  He’s entirely indifferent to them, seeing them as more of an annoying part of life—given that the ship arrived in 1982 and the film takes place in 2010, it’s likely that Wikus has lived his entire life with the Prawns on Earth.  His racism is learned, but not aggressive.  When evicting the Prawns from District 9, he points out various stereotypes he’s probably only read or heard about; there’s no malice behind his words, but they’re full of ignorance from someone who’s just accepted the world as it is.  It might seem less damaging than outright racism, but his complacency about the Prawns is easily more hurtful because when it comes down to it, he just doesn’t care what happens to them.  They could stay in District 9 or be moved to District 10 and he wouldn’t bat an eye; the Prawns’ fate gets a shrug and disinterested, “Meh.”

The parallels in the film to current protests about racial injustices in the United States can’t be ignored, making District 9 even more relevant today than its initial release.  Watching the action, one can’t help but see the connections between the uncaring bureaucracy of Wikus and state governments, the questionable use of force with using a private military contractor and calling up National Guard soldiers, etc.  District 9 might not be a masterpiece or classic of cinema like some of this week’s films, but it might be a more important film to watch because of how apt, honest, and understandable its basic message is.