District 9 and the Creation of the Alien


District 9 was undoubtedly a terrific movie. It’s plot was original and the story unfolded in both exciting and moving ways. I was enthralled from beginning to end. But something is just not sitting right. I get that the film depicts how societies refuse others and collectively ghettoize and render alien citizens who are different.

I get the whole “if you were in the shoes of the other person you might understand yourself a little better thing.”

But there is something that is  keeping me from being really, really, really excited about this movie and the statements it could make about national belonging and otherness.

While the allegorical connection to the movie began with Johannesburg, the fact that these aliens really are aliens and not the people of the land raises a crucial difference in how the conception of difference functions within the movie itself. These creatures literally dropped from the sky. Of course there is going to be societal refusal. The condition the aliens would eventually be left to does well to visualize the practice of differentiation, but in many ways it clouds the processes of formation that creates differences. It is these processes of differentiation that create the spaces of the ghetto, the districts, the internment camps, etc. On the one hand the obvious difference of the aliens creates a helpful visualization of how difference is refused, but it confuses the reality of how difference is created.

The question of apartheid is not only the question of the camps, but of the creation of the conditions that would allow difference to be seen. It is a question of how those on the outside were deemed “natural” citizens. The fact that these aliens are SO different seems to play into the characterizations of difference that create these spaces in the first place. Sure, in many ways the director was trying to ask us the question, “who is really human?” But they so confused the point through a (correctly) muddled view of good/bad within each society that the only marker left was the visual to demarcate the citizen/alien.

It’s along this line that I am really not sure about this movie. The possibility of rendering a people who inhabit a land into aliens is the real miracle of the colonial project and that is the sin we have to reckon with. That we treat others who are different than us badly is obvious at this point. Sadly, the evidence is mounting exponentially. But the response to this must be more nuanced than simple decisions to stop doing it.

District 9 confronts us with the treatment of aliens and not the creation of aliens (or the creation of citizens.) I know movies aren’t supposed to be everything. I am thankful for a thoroughly thought-provoking film. At the same time I am always fearful of the ways such thought-provoking moments can problematically frame our view of the challenges before us.

What do you think?


4 thoughts on “District 9 and the Creation of the Alien

  1. Thanks for writing this Brian. I just saw the movie, but can’t stop thinking about it (and am terribly confused by it!)

    I’m still trying to sort it all out, and while I agree that the movie isn’t actually helpful to probe the creation of difference in society, I also wonder if the lack of this clarity actually points to a deeper reality of assumption in the narration of that which is “other” in our world?

    Particularly, I was struck by how effectively the movie drew me in to realities of the immigrant, and xenophobia, within our world. What does it mean that the “aliens” came to inhabit this new space (voluntary or not)? I love how this complicates the questions of land, ownership, boundaries and belonging. The movie powerfully outlines the digression in the contours of relationship with the “alien,” from compassion to criminalization, in ways that were profound for me. At first, the aliens were starving, malnourished, and “people” needing asylum worth caring for. But fatigue, power, economics and physical space quickly aided in the turn against them. What, exactly, happened?

    And, I’m intrigued by the possibility of response. The patterns of the ways in which abuse begets abuse are inherent to the questions here. Who, exactly, are the aliens? Obviously, these are oversimplified narrations, but — before trekking to South Africa, the Boers were the poor and underserved, the “alienated” of their home. They came as aliens, and alienated inhabitants of the African landscape. Eventually, this turned into apartheid. But, only a few years after apartheid, xenophobic attacks, between black South Africans and Zimbabwean refugees take place. Given many social conditions and factors, we could break down violence and refusal of “the other” throughout American history (from colonialism to slavery to refusal of the immigrant), in Israel-Palestine (an oppressed people now caught in the violence of oppression against others), etc etc. What is this cycle of violence? And what about our identity formation allows for this kind of reality (which leads back to your questions of creation of difference)?

    And, of course, what to make of the hybridity of forms meant to remain distinct? The transgression of Wikus’ body? What does Wikus’ refusal of that which is alien indicate? Is he a sacrificial lamb? Is he the tragic mulatto? And how, theologically, might we begin to negotiate the reality that we are often involuntarily bound to “the other”? The aliens are bound to humanity, and humanity is bound to alien existence, but neither desires this; and so, what is the way forward.

    As I imagine it, perhaps a District 10 will begin to probe some of these questions and possibilities. But, I really appreciated the numerous layers (however cryptic) to the movie (even though I was horrified by some of the re-instantiations of stereotypes — ie, what was the bit with the Nigerian mafia? And the wheelchair bound, witchcraft practicing boss?). And, in the end, despite some flaws in characterization, I generally felt it left the viewer with a complicated sense of biological/cultural/natural/visual identity.

    More questions than answers, here. But, I assume that’s a good thing.


  2. Brian,

    I appreciate your very philosophical view of the movie which I definitely could see and relate to but unfortunately I just could not get past the disgusting violence so much so that I had to leave before the transformation of Wikus took place. James assures me I missed the most important part but I had a hard time getting past the viusal to lock into the philosophical. Thanks for your clearer insight – perhaps it can redeem the movie for me for a later viewing.

  3. Thanks for all these comments, as they helped me to think/feel about the movie through your various experiences. I saw the movie yesterday after many suggestions that I HAD to see the movie. And while it undoubtedly touched on topics few movies are willing to broach, I was less moved by its themes, because of the genre through which it tried to broach those themes. Namely, space aliens. I find it somewhat troubling that to get people to think about issues of identity, race, immigration, justice, people like me (those who came to this land, were ghettoized, fought for a modicum of rights and privileges) need to be portrayed as ugly, grotesque, violent, lazy, crustacean from space. I, like Brian, get the various themes and even how certain tropes are necessary for those themes to be articulated. Yet there is something deeply problematic when those tropes have become the only way those themes CAN be broached, AS IF to suggest there is something truthful about the trope, that the analogy relies on something ACTUAL (i.e. we non-white immigrants are ugly, grotesque, violent, lazy crustacean from space, though some of us do love our children, have the ability to think creatively and can summon the mothership for the sake of freedom/justice). At the heart of DISTRICT 9’s ethical universe (excuse the pun) is a cheap sentimentalism that gets nowhere closer to a genuine politics of difference. It does “get us inside the camps” but I would suggest that if we need DISTRICT 9 to get inside the camps, we never will. (Not to mention the very idea that any compassionate soul CAN get inside is both preposterous and slightly offensive; remember, the camps were the attempt to tear away the moral framework most of use to create meaning and hence the camps elude the meaning-making endeavors.) If this movie helps us Americans better understand what we are currently doing in places like Gitmo or Afghanistan, then I can’t begrudge it’s ethical critique, but unfortunately, it offers us little way forward.

  4. crucial post , really good perspective on the subject and very well written, this certainly has put a spin on my day, umpteen thanks from the UK and sustain the good work.

Comments are closed.