By Stephen Menendian, Senior Legal Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute
The new Peter Jackson film, “District 9,” opened at the top of the US box office this past weekend. The film is a mock documentary covering the events surrounding the arrival of an alien spacecraft to planet earth. A spaceship mysteriously appears above Johannesburg, South Africa. After several months of intrigue, a group of astronauts break into the space ship and discover a colony of starving insectoid aliens, derogatorily referred to as ‘prawns,’ for their appearance. A rescue effort succeeds and the aliens are eventually moved into public housing, and over time, cordoned off. After many years, the colony grows so large, accompanied by crime and public outrage, that a plan emerges to move the now 1.5 million aliens out of Johannesburg’s “District 9” and into the country, a forced relocation.
The filmmakers went out of their way to ensure that the viewers would have few qualms with this idea. After all, the aliens are presented as grotesque, and intended to evoke revulsion at their appearance. The filmmakers don’t have to work hard to dehumanize the aliens; as presented, they bring out the worst in our prejudices.
And, yet, the story that the film tells, of segregation, of apartheid, of the criminality and degradation that follows forced internment and rampant discrimination is a story that is not unfamiliar to Johannesburg or the United States.
District 9 is an allegory of apartheid.
Signs stationed near bathrooms and elevators marked certain facilities for "Humans Only.”
District 9 and the story of District 9 is the story of District 6, and the forced relocation of 60,000 black Africans to make way for a whites only community.
Race is a process of othering, of de-humanizing. The filmmakers don’t have to go far to de-humanize, as the aliens as presented aren’t even human, and worse, are designed to resemble and remind us of creatures of the lowest order on the planet. What that brings out is prejudice of the most common. The criminality, degradation, and poverty of the aliens is then mistaken as inherent. The trivial, common place insults and epithets become part of the fabric of the society.
As an allegory, the film is imperfect. After all, black, whites, latinos, asians… we are all human. The film as a perfect metaphor only works if it essentializes difference. But as a story, as a way of showing people the world from a different perspective using a science fiction hook, it is supremely effective.