District 9: A Post-Colonial Analysis
Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 narrates the story of an alien invasion where humans treat the aliens as refugees. The story begins by providing historical background on the sudden appearance of a spaceship hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa. At first, the aliens receive assistance from citizens, yet tension gradually rises: people begin to feel that the aliens have prolonged their stay. Over time, people segregate the aliens, treating them as refugees.
The plot focuses on Wikus van der Werwe, a head operative of the M.N.U. in charge of relocating the aliens from District 9 to District 10. As Wikus evicts the aliens, he encounters Christopher Johnson, an alien who shows more knowledge compared to the rest of the aliens since he is aware of how to distinguish alien technology from human technology. In addition, he’s aware that alien technology provides the black liquid needed to fuel the spaceship and leave Earth. Furthermore, his home reveals various computer hardware, implying that Christopher Johnson is technology-oriented, as opposed to the rest of the aliens that are worker-oriented. During the relocation, Wikus is exposed to an alien chemical, gradually transforming him into an alien. Although Wikus confiscates the black liquid, his transformation accelerates, horrifying him and other people. Because his transformation allows him to operate alien technology such as weapons, he’s hunted by the M.N.U. Persecuted and alienated, Wikus finds shelter with Christopher Johnson and his son. Together Wikus and Christopher Johnson recover the black liquid, which will allow Christopher Johnson to return home and provide Wikus with a cure to return to his former state.
Wikus van der Werwe works for the government “engag[ing] with the prawn on behalf of M.N.U. and on behalf of humans.” In order to appease the demands of the Johannesburg citizens, the Multi-National United assigns Wikus and his team to evict the aliens from their residences and re-assign them to District 10, moving them away from the populated city and relocating them to an isolated area. In the beginning, audiences observe how Wikus and his team treat the aliens. While the military prefers to shoot and kill any aliens unwilling to concede, Wikus prefers to engage with the aliens in a non-aggressive manner. However, when Wikus discovers a shack filled with eggs, he performs an abortion. Although Wikus follows direct protocol, he fails to recognize that he’s exterminating a species. Wikus displays no remorse towards his actions, suggesting that he’s adapted to the government’s policies. These two separate acts reveal the hypocritical nature of the government’s involvement. Although the M.N.U. claims to have the aliens’ best interest at hand, their motivation is purely self-interested.
The alien refugees are an example of a settler colony. Patrick Wolfe argues that “settler colonialism destroys to replace” (388). Wolfe argues that settler colonialism and genocide does not target particular races but is “made in the targeting” (388). Wolfe’s statement suggests that there is a process to replacement. In the case of District 9, humans are interested in the weapons, while the aliens are engrossed with the cat food. While settler colonialism encourages exchanging resources and language, this positive attitude gradually evolves to fear and hatred. Furthermore, it is not surprising that the settled colony faces oppression. One commentator in the film argues, “The legality that M.N.U. is using to evict the aliens is simply a whitewash.” While the M.N.U. claims the removal of the aliens is due to humanitarian reasons, the central focus, as the film points out, is weapons. Although the arrival of the aliens disrupts the daily lives of citizens, this also provides the M.N.U. with rich resources. To the dismay of many citizens, the aliens inevitably live in Johannesburg, and the government reacts by removing the aliens into a remote piece of land. This government action reflects settler colonialism. In this case, the aliens have settled in District 9, while the M.N.U. assume authorial power. The objective of settler colonialism relies on acquiring indigenous territory and resources, resulting in exterminating the natives. According to Lorenzo Veracini, he argues that the aliens in District 9, along with “indigenous peoples in other settler colonial settings,” represent “obstacles,” therefore, people have no use for them except for the land they inhabit (361). Through colonialism, the indigenous expose and share the culture with the colonists. With colonialism, this brings interbreeding between different racial groups through marriage or sexual relations known as miscegenation.
According to Wolfe, he argues that settler colonialism “encourage[s] miscegenation” (388). District 9 refers to miscegenation twice in the film: once when the film details a prostitution ring between humans and the aliens, and a second time when Wikus begins to transform into an alien and reports of inter-species relations claim to be the cause of his transformation. These false reports not only alienate Wikus, but also show the concerns of miscegenation. When news spread that intersexual relations with an alien is the cause of Wikus‘ transformation, people show alarm and disgust, suggesting that race-mixing is not acceptable. Since people oppose the interbreeding between alien and human, this reveals hatred toward the other race. As Wikus progressively transforms into an alien, he becomes someone who rejects his own race. According to F. James Davis, people who are “racially mixed” are “socially marginal,” meaning they are not accepted from either parent group, leaving them susceptible for discrimination (25). The transformation horrifies Wikus. After black bile drips from his nose and losing several of his fingernails and teeth, Wikus still denies his change. As his arm changes into an alien claw, Wikus tries to cut off his own hand, leading him to cry out in pain. Since Wikus feels pain when he cuts off a finger, this shows, to Wikus‘ horror, that the alien arm is a part of him. His transformation represents the fear of and realization of the “one-drop rule.” According to Davis, a drop of “black blood” defines a person as black (5). Because Wikus denies his race, he recognizes that aliens are inferior to humans. He knows that as a human being he retains certain rights and privileges; additionally, he’s fully aware that aliens are not accepted by society. If society allows miscegenation, this brings peace and harmony among race relations. However, since society prohibits miscegenation, there exists no balance between humans and aliens.
Due to the sudden exposure of alien biotechnology, Wikus experiences an unfamiliar culture, causing him to interact with the aliens, specifically Christopher Johnson and his son. This exposure allows Wikus to identify with the aliens, permitting Wikus to grow sympathetic towards the aliens. Because of his gradual transformation into an alien, Wikus is experimented on by scientists from M.N.U. experiment on Wikus to test various alien weapons. After shooting various animal carcasses, the scientists order Wikus to shoot an alien. Although he refuses to shoot, Wikus is ultimately forced to kill the alien. During his stay with the scientists, Wikus becomes aware of the unfair violence and abuse towards the aliens. In the case of Christopher Johnson, he and Wikus unite and fight together for separate reasons: Christopher Johnson wants to go home and Wikus wants a cure that only Christopher Johnson can provide. As Wikus continues to transform, his perception on the aliens changes. Towards the end of the film, Wikus leaves Christopher Johnson to face a brutal death, yet he saves him, an act which displays sympathy and acceptance of not only the alien who promises to cure him, but also acceptance of his own race.
Once Wikus separates himself from society, this leads the audience to “identif[y] with the protagonist,” building “tension and identification…used to deliver a powerful critique of contemporary developments” (359). Apart from miscegenation, the film critiques issues of xenophobia and “privatized violence” (359). The commentary provided at the start of the film reveals xenophobic attitudes towards the aliens.
The aliens are evicted from the townships, living away from human beings. Footage reveals that there are hate crimes against the aliens (i.e. shooting riots and burning down the aliens’ homes). The film also depicts citizens segregating the humans from the aliens. By relocating the aliens from District 9 to District 10, people hope the violence will cease; however, the relocation allows people to avoid confronting and resolving the racial problems.
The film’s antagonist, Koobus Venter, serves in the military and displays a ruthless and callous attitude towards the aliens. Since Koobus displays xenophobic behavior, this suggests that xenophobia is a common attitude among Johannesburg. Although xenophobia pertains to the irrational fear or hatred towards foreigners, xenophobia does derive from a cause. Xenophobia can arise as a result of poor education or alienation of those that are different. Another cause of xenophobia is propaganda. At the beginning of the film, audiences see signs displaying segregation, visually dividing the humans from the aliens. The use of racial propaganda manipulates the information and influences people to believe one side of the argument, thereby creating stereotypes. The aliens, for example, receive the derogatory name “prawn” to indicate their appearance and low rank. Because the film depicts xenophobia, this provides a critique on a social issue, suggesting an act to reform.
As the film tackles themes and social issues such as xenophobia, miscegenation, and privatized violence, the film reveals humanity’s cruel nature. District 9 is not just a science fiction film, but a film depicting issues of race that still remain relevant to this day.
Davis, F. James. Who is Black? One Nation’s Definition. 10th ed. Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2001. Print.
Veracini, Lorenzo. “District 9 and Avatar: Science Fiction and Settler Colonialism.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 32.4 (2011): 355-367. Academic Search Complete. Web.
Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8.4 (2006):387-409. Academic Search Complete. Web.
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