© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
The inaugural feature film by director Neill Blomkamp (who also co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Terry Tatchell), District 9 was based on Alive in Joberg (2006), an earlier short directed by Blomkamp. The original film was successful enough to allow Blomkamp to interest film industry heavy-hitter Peter Jackson in producing an extended version, which became District 9, produced by Jackson and his associate Carolynne Cunningham. District 9 is an extremely effective and unusual alien-invasion story that manages to combine compelling drama with impressive visual effects and thoughtful political commentary—though it does have its blind spots. Related in a semi-documentary style (from which it departs freely in the interest of storytelling), District 9 imagines an alternate history Johannesburg roughly twenty years after a disabled alien craft came to rest, hovering in the air over the city. The craft was eventually entered by humans with cutting torches; inside, they found its million-plus alien passengers, starving and in ill-health, seemingly confused and disoriented, without leadership. The aliens were eventually brought down to the surface. There, they were treated with suspicion and hostility, given the derogatory label “prawns,” and eventually enclosed in a ghetto of decaying shacks (the “District 9” of the title), where they virtually treated like animals. In the present time of the film, tensions between the aliens and nearby humans have reached a crisis, causing the humans to demand that the aliens be relocated to a new tent camp far outside of Johannesburg. The plot of the film revolves around this relocation effort. Meanwhile, as the film proceeds, we will learn that even more disturbing activities are underway, such as the use of the aliens in gruesome medical experiments as part of an effort to weaponize their technology.
The Story: Aliens, Apartheid, and Xenophobia
The main plot of the film is initiated when the government contracts with weapons manufacturer Multinational United (MNU) to carry out the relocation project, and MNU assigns protagonist Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) to head the project. Among other things, the depiction of MNU throughout the film adds an extra layer to the film’s satire suggesting the negative consequences around the world of the operation of such evil multinational corporations, with weapons manufacturers perhaps being the most evil of all. In particular, the film makes clear that MNU has agreed to handle this project out of pure greed. Showing no sympathy or concern for the aliens, they simply want to get the job done as quickly and cheaply as possible, at the same time hoping to collect information that will help them to find a way to employ alien technologies as part of their own weapons development programs. They thus ironically acknowledge the technological superiority of the aliens, even as they are willing to treat them as subhuman.
MNU at least attempts to put a positive public face on their relocation project, though it is clear from the very beginning that this is nothing but a public relations subterfuge. The bumbling van de Merwe is in no way qualified to head the project, but is appointed to do so largely because he is married to the daughter of MNU executive Piet Smit (Louis Minaar). Indeed, that van de Merwe is so unqualified is actually an advantage, because MNU does not want him to interfere with their real agenda. Predictably, the project doesn’t go well, leading to considerable confusion and violence. Meanwhile, van de Merwe is exposed to a substance that begins to transform him into an alien. He also becomes involved in the efforts of one of the aliens, dubbed “Christopher Johnson,” to repair and refuel an alien craft that will allow him to get back up to the mothership and reactivate it as well. As the film ends, Christopher has, in fact, returned to the craft, which then departs from earth, leaving considerable uncertainty about what will happen next, though Johnson promises van de Merwe that he will return with technology that will help him to become human again.
The aliens of District 9 are decidedly alien, though Blomkamp does humanize them to an extent in his attempt to make them sympathetic. The film thus sacrifices a certain amount of realism in favor of delivering its allegorical message, and it does so quite effectively. The viciousness with which the aliens are treated by their human hosts in District 9 becomes a clear commentary on racism among humans, especially in South Africa, where the film comments in a rather obvious way on the legacy of Apartheid. Moreover, given that these aliens have arrived from elsewhere and are now refugees, the film also comments on the often heartless way in which refugees have been treated in various places around the world in recent years. Finally, given the activities of MNU, the film also makes some pointed statements about the sometimes sinister role played by such corporate entities in the contemporary world, with special emphasis on the evils of the weapons industry.
The film was generally well received by critics (and received a Best Picture Academy Award nomination), though it did generate a certain amount of controversy. Some critics, for example, were concerned that the film centers on a white protagonist who ultimately saves the day, ultimately undermining its anti-racism message. Indeed, though van de Merwe’s transformation propels him partly into the position of any alien, none of the aliens are portrayed with any depth and we see very little in the film that would explain who these creatures might have developed such advanced technologies. We also see no female aliens at all, posing still more questions. And, finally, we never see anything from the true point of view of the aliens, who remain mysterious and inscrutable to us. Meanwhile, the lack of portrayal of the aliens is accompanied by the negative portrayal of the film’s principal black characters, a group of murderous and savage Nigerian gangsters who attempt to exploit the aliens even more viciously than do the white authorities—including resorting to eating the bodies of aliens to try to absorb their power. Within the world of the film, audiences are clearly expected to revel in the fact that the brutal and savage Nigerians are eventually massacred by van de Merwe using advanced alien weaponry. This portrayal, essentially a reconstruction of racist/colonialist stereotypes concerning black Africans in general, was so extreme that the film was banned in Nigeria. Given that, as late as September, 2019, as I am writing this, the streets of Johannesburg are being thrown into chaos by xenophobic anti-Nigerian rioting, one can only wish that Blomkamp had used the alien motif of District 9 to condemn xenophobia in all its forms, rather than potentially making the problem worse through the negative depiction of Nigerians as vicious, inhuman gangsters (with tendencies toward cannibalism and devil worship) in the film. Strong anti-Nigerian sentiment is a significant ongoing social problem in South Africa; it could (and should) have been dealt with more sensitively in this film.
District 9, South Africa’s Racial History, and Post-Apartheid Neoliberalism
If District 9 is, at least in part, an allegorical critique of racism in South Africa, then it is necessary, in order to understand the film, to have a basic knowledge of the baleful legacy of racism in South Africa. After all, South Africa has a long and troubled history in this regard. The black San people (also known as Bushmen) were the first inhabitants of South Africa and have been in the region for thousands of years. The black Khoikhoi (often referred to as “Hottentots” by early European explorers) migrated south into the region about two thousand years ago. Bantu speakers, ancestors of most of the current-day black population, had moved into the northern part of what is now South Africa by the eighth century. The Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias became the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope (the southern tip of Africa) in 1488, and Portuguese ships, seeking trade in Asia, followed his route for the next several decades. During this period, there was relatively little contact with the mainland, though Portuguese sailors, occasionally shipwrecked and forced to come ashore, reported contact with Bantu speakers by the middle of the sixteenth century. The first permanent European settlement in the cape region of South Africa was established at Table Bay by a group of white Dutch settlers, or Boers (Dutch for “farmers”), led by Jan van Riebeeck in 1652. The European population in the region gradually grew through the late seventeenth century, and settlers began to penetrate the interior, trading with the Khoikhoi and San peoples they encountered. In the eighteenth century, European settlers increasingly began to farm and graze cattle in the interior, leading to conflicts with the Bantu, who were already using the same land for the same purposes.
The British seized the cape region from the Dutch in 1795, though their possession was not recognized by the Dutch until 1815, when the British officially bought the region and established a colonial administration there. The discovery of large deposits of gold in the Transvaal in the 1890s led the British, already engaged in campaigns to expand their colonial holdings throughout Africa, to increase their resolve to control the region of South Africa. This goal was achived when the Boers were finally defeated and subdued by the British in the Boer War of 1899-1902, one of the most brutal conflicts in the history of European colonial expansion. Indeed, the British were forced to resort in that war to a number of extremely brutal and oppressive measures (such as the imprisonment of Boer women and children in concentration camps) in order to squelch the surprisingly fierce resistance of the Boers.
By 1910 the British had established the Union of South Africa, with dominion status within the British Empire. This union, consisting of the provinces of the Cape of Good Hope, Natal, the Free Orange State , and the Transvaal, granted considerable concessions to the Boers, and the Boer leader Louis Botha became the first prime minister. In 1914, Botha put down a minor Boer revolt against South African participation in World War I on the side of the allies. South African troops then proceeded to occupy German South West Africa and to fight elsewhere in Africa and in France on the allied side. After the war, the Union of South Africa retained control of South West Africa. Boer leaders maintained a great deal of political power in South Africa in the next two decades, during most of which the Boer nationalist leader J. B. M. Hertzog was prime minister. Boer nationalist agitation also led to British recognition of South Africa’s independence from British rule in the Declaration of 1926 and the Statute of Westminster in 1931. In 1939, Hertzog opposed South African participation in World War II on the British side, but parliamentary support for the war effort led to Hertzog’s removal. His one-time associate Jan Smuts (who had been prime minster from 1919 to 1924) became the prime minister and led South Africa into active support of the Allies in the World War.
Smuts remained in power until 1948, when his United Party lost the national elections to the Boer Nationalist Party, which proceeded to implement the extremist program of racial segregation that would eventually become known as Apartheid. Under this program, South Africans were strictly classified according to their racial background as white, colored, or “native” (later called Bantu or African). Racially mixed marriages were outlawed and separate residential, business, and public areas and facilities were designated for each race. Those moving outside their own racial area were required to obtain government permits, and an elaborate system of rules and classifications assured that only whites had access to the best jobs and educational opportunities. Nonwhites were largely disenfranchised and denied any meaningful participation in the national government. Virtually all economic resources remained in white control, and the majority nonwhite population either worked for white bosses or lived in abject poverty in strictly enclosed ethnic enclaves.
The system of apartheid remained in place for the next several decades, and most modifications made to the system before the 1970s actually strengthened the separation of the races and the official white domination of the country. Meanwhile, South Africa, despite its despotic apartheid regime, carried on active relations with the democratic nations of the West, which were hesitant to oppose the staunchly anticommunist South African regime. Indeed, South Africa, with its well-developed industrial base and its rich mineral reserves, carried on an active trade with Britain, Japan, Germany, the United States, and other leading capitalist nations. In 1960, a peaceful protest against the apartheid pass laws at Sharpeville (near Johannesburg) was broken up when police opened fire on the unarmed crowd, killing seventy and wounding nearly two hundred others. Subsequently, a growing South African resistance movement gained more and more support in the West. South Africa’s repressive racial policies led to the nation’s expulsion from the British Commonwealth in 1961, and popular protests in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere gradually led to the diplomatic and economic isolation of South Africa. More and more Western companies withdrew their South African investments, and by the late 1970s South Africa was under extreme pressure to revise its apartheid policies.
Still, the Nationalist Party maintained control of the South African government, and leaders such as the former Nazi sympathizer B. J. Vorster (who was prime minister from 1966 to 1978) actually worked to further white control and to suppress black dissent. Most opposition leaders (including Nelson Mandela, leader of the outlawed African National Congress, or ANC, the most important opposition party) were either in jail or exile by the end of the 1960s. Beginning in the 1970s, South Africa attempted to solidify segregation by containing much of the black population in “homelands” that were declared independent of the rest of the country—and that contained few of the nation’s rich natural resources. Meanwhile, the Vorster regime in South Africa gave significant military assistance to white regimes in the neighboring countries of Angola, Mozambique, and Rhodesia in an unsuccessful attempt to quell black liberation movements in those countries.
By 1976, internal opposition to apartheid had erupted into widespread violence, beginning with an open student-led rebellion by blacks in the township of Soweto, near Johannesburg. More than 600 blacks were killed in the subsequent government reaction to this and other rebellions, and the associated 1977 death of black leader Steve Biko in police custody further increased tensions. In 1978, P. W. Botha, Vorster’s successor as prime minister, began to take a few tentative steps toward reform, eventually leading to the adoption of a new constitution (in 1984) that nominally eased certain of the restrictions imposed by apartheid and established separate legislatures for whites, coloreds, and Asians, though not for blacks. Meanwhile, in 1988, South Africa finally agreed, after considerable attempts to suppress the independence movement there, to relinquish control of South West Africa, which then became the nation of Namibia.
On the other hand, Botha continued to support the basic tenets of apartheid and to launch military strikes against insurgent South African groups in exile in neighboring countries, even as international pressure (including an economic boycott originally called for by Mandela) to end apartheid began to mount. Indeed, most of the reforms of the 1980s were merely cosmetic, and brutal suppression of opposition to the ruling apartheid regime continued through the decade. Opponents of the government were continually harassed, arrested, tortured, and even murdered. Meanwhile, peaceful demonstrations continued to be disrupted by police violence. An official state of emergency was declared in 1985, giving the police extraordinary powers to quell opposition to the government. In 1989, however, F. W. de Klerk became the prime minister and began to work in earnest to dismantle the system of apartheid. In 1990, the state of emergency was lifted, and parties such as the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, banned for decades, were again made legal. ANC leader Mandela was released from prison after serving twenty-seven years of a life sentence for treason and began to work with de Klerk to prepare the country for a transition to majority rule. Over one hundred pieces of legislation relating to the policies of apartheid were repealed, and by the end of 1991 a constitutional convention met to draw up a new interim constitution.
The transitional period of the early 1990s was marred by continuing police violence, attacks on blacks by Boer nationalist extremists, ethnic violence among blacks (especially between the Xhosa and Zulu peoples), and violent clashes between rival black political factions, especially the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party, led by Zulu chief Mangosuthu Butholezi. In April, 1993, Chris Hani, leader of the South African Communist Party and former military head of Spear of the Nation (a guerrilla group associated with the ANC), was assassinated by white right-wing extremists. The death of this much beloved leader, for whom the South African police refused to provide protection though they had been warned that he might be in danger, led to expressions not only of mourning but of outrage. Clashes between police and demonstrators accompanied these expressions, to the point that de Klerk declared the country on the verge of racial war. Further fears of instability arose when Oliver Tambo, the much-respected long-time chairman of the ANC, died of a stroke a mere two weeks after Hani’s assassination. However, Mandela urged calm, and order was maintained. Before the year was out Mandela and de Klerk had been jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, announcing the full acceptance of the new South Africa by the international community. National elections in April of 1994 allowed full black participation and were dominated by the ANC; Mandela was easily elected the first president of the new nation, which continues at this writing to struggle toward democracy and equality. The police, military, and other government institutions have been officially integrated, though the white and nonwhite populations still tend to live separately and the economic gap between the two groups remains large. The social, cultural, and psychic scars of decades of Apartheid continue to haunt the nation and its people.
The basic scenario of District 9 is related particularly directly to events that occurred in the District Six area of Cape Town in the 1970s and early 1980s. At that time, more than 60,000 nonwhite residents were forcibly removed from their homes (which were bulldozed) and relocated to a much less desirable location. The government justified the removals based on manufactured claims that the area had become a haven for crime and violence, when in fact it was clear that the real motivation was to allow this highly lucrative area to be taken over and developed for the use of white citizens and their businesses. Controversies over the entire project have, however, led most of the area to remain undeveloped
Rebecca Duncan, writing specifically of District 9, has outlined the way in which the events of the film are related, not just to the specific history of South Africa, but to the legacy of colonial exploitation worldwide. Perhaps more importantly, she demonstrates that the film, while drawing upon such past events, also refers to contemporary events, such as the global spread of neoliberalism, which has contributed to ongoing social and economic inequalities in South Africa well after the official end of Apartheid. Locating the film within a contemporary boom in South African science fiction, Duncan argues that this boom as a whole is a response to neoliberalism in South Africa, as well as a response to the growing globalization of culture, which has made science fiction from the United States and elsewhere increasingly popular in South Africa. In this sense, Duncan sees the presence of MNU in the film as particularly crucial, though she also warns that we should not focus on the film as a critique of neoliberal globalization to the point of obscuring its specific South African referents. For Duncan, then,
“District 9 witnesses the scene of subsumption to a (neoliberal) capitalist agenda—one that is salient across the twenty-first-century world-system—but does so from postapartheid South Africa, capturing the ‘irreducibly specific’ experience of neoliberalisation at this locality. Considered thus, the film becomes neither an allegory of the local past, nor a universalising parable of the global ‘now’; rather, it emerges as one imagining of the post-millennial, postapartheid context, in which uneven and globally trenchant neoliberal materialities overlay, and in places compound, those of South Africa’s colonial and apartheid histories. What the film presents us with, then, is a vision of the postapartheid nation cumulatively forged in the millennial present through the concatenation of old and new regimes; it offers a view of a particular place, historically shaped by a particular politics, at a moment when the long-implemented structures of reality are undergoing reorganization—and selective reassertion—to suit the demands of multinational capital” (58–59).
Duncan finds that District 9 is, in general, successful in engaging with both the Apartheid past and the neoliberal present. She does, however, feel that the film has one major shortcoming in this regard, which once again has to do with the portrayal of the film’s Nigerian gang. Thus, not only does the film fail to critique the very real anti-Nigerian xenophobia of contemporary South African society, but it also fails to explore the possibility that such gangs might be produced by contemporary neoliberal economic conditions, leading to a precarity of labor and a desperate need to scramble for resources:
“the demonisation of the Nigerian gang is not linked—as is human animosity towards the aliens—to a culture of job-shortage and limited public funding, and this absence of context in the film disarms any defence that makes recourse to notions of satirical self-reflection. Obasandjo [the leader of the gang] and his followers emerge as primitively constructed avatars of evil, in a way that seems inexplicably to affirm xenophobic anxieties and validate anti-immigrant vigilantism, rather than to explore these as symptomatic of the postapartheid ecological revolution in a way that might, if sensitively handled, support a critique of capital’s organisation of Cheap Nature as Cheap Labour by playing out the local consequences of this regime” (69).
On the other hand, in an excellent discussion of the allegorical resonances of District 9, Andrew Butler acknowledges that the film’s representation of Nigerians is offensive. However, Butler, points out that white people are also portrayed negatively in the film. Drawing upon previous critics such as M. J. van Veuren and J. Clover, Butler notes van Veuren’s suggestion that the representation of various ethnic groups in District 9 is like a “puppet theatre of stereotypes” (van Veuren 571). Butler then goes on to note Clover’s assertion that the film “seems to dislike pretty much every human, and human position, it can conjure up; if the aliens represent some fraction of humanity, well, it doesn’t like them much either. It’s driven … by a profound and remorseless contempt for present humanity” (8).
District 9 and Its Context Within Popular Culture
District 9 is obviously a film that can only be understood within the contexts, both global and local, to which it refers. But a viewing of the film can also usefully be enriched by considering it within the pop cultural contexts within which it resides. The most obvious of these is the legacy of science fiction films about alien invasions, with which District 9 enters into an interesting dialogue. The bedraggled, downtrodden aliens of Blomkamp’s film, for example, are a far cry from the haughtily superior aliens who appear as would-be saviors in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) or as would-be conquerors in Independence Day (1996). In some ways, the alien invasion film that District 9 resembles most is the 1988 American film Alien Nation, in which a craft bearing 300,000 enslaved aliens crash lands in the Mojave Desert, stranding the aliens on earth. The principle concern of the film (which revolves around a human-alien team of cops in L.A.) is then the efforts of the “Newcomers” to assimilate in earth society, while dealing with extensive anti-alien racism and xenophobia.
District 9, however, draws upon other genres as well. As Duncan points out, the partial transformation of van de Merwe into a “prawn,” participates in the tradition of body horror, a subgenre of horror that concentrates on the abject and potentially horrifying implications of the fact that human beings are physical creatures, still animals, however intelligent. Reading the film within the context of her central concern with neoliberalism and globalization, Duncan concludes that van de Merwe’s “transformation from human to ‘prawn’ dramatises the unravelling of capital’s Society-Nature binary as one ecological regime shifts into another, then the fantastical brutality with which this is effected—he messily loses fingernails and teeth, and his skin begins to slough off—registers not only disorientation but also a sense of profoundly felt assault” (65).
It is certainly the case that van de Merwe’s transformation deconstructs the polar opposition between self and other upon which racism and xenophobia depend; it also does so in graphic ways that push the film into the realm of horror. Along these same lines, Butler draws upon Julia Kristeva’s well-known discussion of the “abject” in her book Powers of Horror to illuminate van de Merwe’s transformation. For Kristeva, abjection is a process through which certain objects or ideas are identified as wholly foreign to us, then regarded on the one hand with horror and revulsion and on the other hand with an odd sort of fascination, both aspects of this twinned response going well beyond what is rationally justified. Kristeva describes the process largely in psychological terms, though it can also be applied to large-scale phenomena, such as racism and Orientalism. In the case of District 9, can de Merwe’s transformation is presented as a particularly horrifying invasion of his body by foreign forces, accompanied by the expulsion of nauseating and disgusting bodily fluids. And yet his transformation is also an object of some fascination for both the white authorities and the Nigerian gangsters, especially once they realize that van de Merwe, because of his ongoing transformation, is now able to operate alien technologies (especially weaponry) that no human had previously been able to operate.
Many body horror films draw upon abjection in their presentation of the transformation of human beings into nonhuman creatures of one kind or another. Perhaps the film that most closely anticipates District 9 in this respect is David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), in which experiments in teleportation by scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) lead him accidentally to combine his DNA with that of a common house fly. The fly’s DNA proves to be stronger, and Brundle slowly and horrifying transforms into a giant fly in the course of the film. The visuals make this transportation particularly graphic, including disgusting scenes in which he vomits corrosive fluids onto his food in order to predigest it. But he also gains in physical power and ability, reflecting the fascination side of the equation. In any case, what is especially horrifying is not that Brundle becomes a giant fly but that, along the way, he becomes a grotesque combination of fly and human, just as van de Merwe never becomes fully alien but remains, to the end of the film, a hybrid of human and alien.
The Legacy of District 9
District 9, made on an operating budget of approximately $30 million, was a substantial commercial success that grossed more than $210 million in worldwide box-office receipts. It was also showered with critical praise, though some felt that its tendency to descend into a nonstop series of violent action scenes in its last half hour was a flaw. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including the coveted Oscar for Best Picture, though he did not win any of the awards. It also propelled Blomkamp to sf film stardom, enabling him to gain the helm of the big-budget Hollywood film Elysium (2013), which he wrote, directed, and co-produced. Elysium is another sf film packed with political commentary, though in this case the message is diluted by excessive reliance on violent action sequences. It was a moderate commercial success but drew mixed reviews; Blomkamp himself has expressed regrets that the film did not live up to the promise of its premise.
Blomkamp again co-wrote (with Tatchell) his next film, Chappie (2015), which is, like Elysium, an American film, though it returns to the Johannesburg setting of District 9. Here, in a premise that recalls the sf classic Robocop(1987), the city of Johannesburg deploys a squadron of attack robots as enforcers in an attempt to quell soaring crime rates. One of the robots is installed with artificialintelligence in a motif that is clearly designed to explore the boundary between human and machine, as is the attempt to humanize the robot, in scenes sometimes more reminiscent of Short Circuit (1986) than of Robocop,though there are also scenes of extreme violence. Many reviewers found this combination of tones to be a flaw, and most reviewers felt that the film did not effectively explore any of the other big ideas that it ambitiously attempts to take on.
 For an angry negative reaction to the film (based more than anything on its racist depiction of Nigerians), see the blog of the important Nigerian-American novelist Nnedi Okorafor at https://nnedi.blogspot.com/2009/08/my-response-to-district-419i-mean.html?fbclid=IwAR0IkL8pEPjxFpbgfmGI68OP4e79qgGqW1TuXP9DZDBf2tuEM6hS3SBI5RA.
 These camps consisted of tent cities that looked very much like the ones in which the aliens are initially housed in District 9 after having been taken down from their ship, almost as if to intentionally complicate any allegorical identification between the aliens and black South Africans.
 As many as 28,000 Boer civilians, most of them under the age of sixteen, apparently perished in the British concentration camps (Warwick 1).
 See Rebecca Duncan, “From Cheap Labour to Surplus Humanity: World-Ecology and the Postapartheid Speculative in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9,” Science Fiction Film and Television 11.1 (2018): 45–72.
 Andrew Butler, “Human Subjects—Alien Objects?: Abjection and the Constructions of Race and Racism in District 9.” Alien Imaginations: Science Fiction and Tales of Transnationalism. Ed. Ulrike Küchler, Silja Maehl, and Graeme Stout. Bloomsbury Academy, 2015. 95–112.
 J. Clover, “Allegory Bomb,” Film Quarterly 63 (2009): 8–9; M. J. van Veuren, “Tooth and Nail: Anxious Bodies in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9,” Critical Arts 26 (2012): 570–86.
 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez. Columbia University Press, 1982.