District 9 & Racism

Posted on August 22, 2009

0


When I saw the movie a week ago, I had already been made aware of a seething anger towards it, as viciously racist, though I was not sure of the reason for the sentiment.

I didn’t look into it before going to see the movie because I wanted to know as little as possible about a movie I was admittedly fascinated by. I had been at the midnight showing of Wolverine, and this movie’s teaser came on.

Bored two seconds in, and ignoring the odd sensations I was getting wondering why there was a trailer for a documentary about refugees trailing before a comic book action movie, I had leaned over to my friend and whispered, “For once, can we not have a movie about Africa that has to be about issues and poverty and refugees? You know what would be nice? If they panned up from that ghetto and showed hovering over the city, a big fucking alien mothership–“

I’m not ashamed to say that I teared up when I saw that big fucking alien mothership hovering over Joburg. It was a feeling, as an African living in the West, I cannot describe. It was as if, after centuries of being denied a life, that every time we were portrayed in film in the Western world, we had to have issues, we were finally allowed to just be part of the creative world. That our creativity, divorced from perceptions of the rest of the world, was finally on the international stage.

It was a moment I’m unlikely to soon forget. And, it looked like a truly remarkable science fiction film.

And I was not disappointed.

But rather than being able to come online and read some excellent commentary on this astonishing work of filmmaking, I had to come to noise and vitriol from the press and the blogosphere about the “unbelievable racism” in the movie.

Revelations first. I’m a Nigerian female. I’ve lived all over the world and traveled back and forth between Nigeria and everywhere all my life. I was born and raised in one of the southernmost cities of Nigeria, on the shores of the terrifying Atlantic and the heart-stopping rainforests. So from this perspective comes all what I have to say on this matter.

As I said, accusations of racism are at the root of the cries and “anger” on the internet, centered mainly around one thing– the portrayal of “the Nigerians” in the movie, “the Nigerians” being a gang of rabid criminals in the alien ghetto who play the role of exploiters in the movie.

The placement of the word anger in quotes is intentional on my part and is the root of my own boiling anger toward the responses I read, and was the reason I had to delay my post a week.

Because rather than a single one of these commentators asking a very simple, rather unassuming question, that is, why the director would chose to portray a group like this, they instead embarked on a fucking truly astonishing ride of sanctimonious indignation.

Anger on behalf of all Nigerians? On behalf of all blacks? On behalf all black Africans?

Really?

From individuals who have never been to Africa, never experienced what the filmmaker has seen or experienced, never cared to simply ask what the fuck, but who want to assume that what they know from their own experiences should apply?

Where to even begin?

If this subject is of no interest to you, needless to say, feel free to skip. I’m definitely not here to harsh anybody’s buzz.

But if you care to read on, read on.

Neill Blomkamp, the director and co-writer of the movie, is a 30 year old filmmaker from Johannesburg, South Africa. At the age of 18, and in possibly some of the worst years of the post-apartheid fallout, his family left South Africa for Canada.

That departure at that particular point in the country’s history, means, effectively, that he and his family are white. (At that time whites fled the country by the thousands out of everything from stupidity to guilt-fueled fear to fear for their physical safety in the midst of escalations of violence.)

Blomkamp is in fact a white South African male. Which means, on a subject matter like this, i.e. a film making a metaphor of apartheid, it’s a legitimate cause for concern. More on that later.

For now, let’s return to the central focus of all the anger: the portrayal of “the Nigerians” in the movie. As scammers at the least of it, and violent, brutal cannibal/flesh eaters at the worst of it. Complete with a painted, screeching witch doctor at the heart of the gang leader’s motivations.

The scenes with “the Nigerians” are “shocking.” They leave–and evidently left–most of the viewers who saw it sputtering with rage. Enough to set the webs ablaze, and probably affect the movie’s box office.

But… what happened here? People walked into a movie and saw something that seemed to strike gongs of recognition to vicious images that had justified centuries of European slave trade and colonization on the African continent. And in a 2009 movie by a white South African male! The audacity was too much to believe! How could this man DO such a thing??

And no one stopped, not even out of simple intellectual curiosity, to ask why he would do such a thing. Why, in this day and age, and being a white guy from South Africa, why would he think he could get away with something so blatant. Was he just that uncontrollably white South African, read: racist?

Well then, before I continue any further, let me inject fact into this discussion.

This is the way some Nigerians are.

In Nigeria there is brutality and ritual cannibalism and tons of other unsavory shit you don’t want to hear about. These things go on every day right on the outskirts of our cities, and sometimes inside them. I don’t know what it is about Africans, maybe it’s because the human race originated there, but believe me when I tell you that our passions run deep. And if you’re a psychotic criminal then I guess those passions warp into something else entirely, and take on the aspects mentioned above.

District 9 portrays a gang of psychotic criminals. Not Nigerian tourists, not Nigerian professionals working in South Africa, not the Nigerian people. Psychotic. Nigerian. Criminals.

This is what you see when you are standing in Africa. Neill Blomkamp did not make this up, and he did not portray a lie.

Had the outlandish horrors in Rwanda, the Sudan or the Congo been dramatized as part of a movie’s plot, on what basis would the outcry of racism come? Or would that be okay because the West has already politicized and Amnesty Internationalized those issues?

This is what Nigerian criminals are doing in Johannesburg. This is the fear they’re spreading all over Africa and anywhere they can in the world, terrorizing other people in their own countries. It’s too bad if this is shocking to Western audiences, but if anyone would take a minute to read up on things, they would see that these things are not a secret.

In this vein, one interesting thing of note. Note that the head of the Nigerian gang, this animal of a man who treats even his fellow humans as less than stray dogs, is called “Obasanjo.”

Obasanjo is the name of the former Nigerian president.

Not one Western reviewer caught this. Not a one. This massive fuck-you to the happy-go-lucky institutionalized brutality of African leaders.

And why did no Western reviewer catch this metaphor? Because no reviewer in the West actually cares what’s going on with Nigerians. It just feels better to get offended by the white guy showing blacks as bad people.

All right. And now for the real issues to be addressed:

The legitimate concern that it does no good to reinforce stereotypes to a Western, and especially an American, audience.

Correct. But Neill Blomkamp cannot be held responsible for the education of the American people. If Americans cared an iota about racial portrayals in entertainment, they would educate themselves about the blacks who are here and suffering from being stereotyped everywhere in the media, and they would shake up the blogosphere every time shit was thrown out in a sitcom or a movie.

But no.

Then the argument that it does no good to show “Nigerians” in this light.

Sure. It is worth noting, though, that no one seems to differentiate normal Nigerians from a bunch of fucking criminals.

But let’s give a margin for such error, and ask instead: In what light should Blomkamp depict Nigerian criminals? In a politically correct and palatable light? That because he’s shown “ugly” Nigerians, he’s obligated to show “good” Nigerians? Obligated to whom?

Like any true creator, he is using things he has seen in his own experience, and just as we’re allowed to use our crazy aunt Hilda for a plot thread, so he’s allowed to use Nigerian criminals in his movie. He owes Nigerians nothing.

Then there’s the more general concern that blacks in film can and tend to be portrayed in certain unsavory ways. Absolutely correct.

But can we not have context anymore? Are we not allowed to show negative factual portrayals of a group of people when the rest of the movie treats everyone – blacks, whites, aliens – with a remarkably even hand? Seriously?

Every human being has the right to be judged on her/his own merits. And Neill Blomkamp deserves no less.

Had this movie been made by a Nigerian man, and instead of Nigerian thugs, he portrayed Ethiopian gangs doing fucked up things in Nigeria, would there be an uproar by audiences? I don’t think so. I think what would happen is that there would be a sort of held-breath moment and a sort of Hmm, followed by a “Well, I guess he must know what he’s talking about.”

So let’s judge Neill Blomkamp on his own merits:

Had Blomkamp made a movie with no blacks in it, with all the characters and faces across the board being white, and then had the only blacks in the movie being psychotic gangsters, then I would say, yes, something is wrong here.

Likewise, had he had all the blacks being in weird servile mode to the whites, all the characters split in function along skin color, then I would flip my middle finger and shove it to him hard and without the joys of lubrication.

But his cast is multiracial, and the interviewees, the employees, the soldiers and the bosses, all are treated equally in the movie, both blacks and whites having the same type of dialogue and focusing the hatred and “otherness” on the aliens themselves, a tact which spoke volumes to the subject matter of his movie.

Yes, the hero is a white guy, but so what? The impressive thing about the writing is that every character, whether human or alien, is “normal,” in the sense that they’re flawed. Here, the hero is everything from racist/xenophobic to dumb and shortsighted. But in that sense he embodies the potential of all human beings to grow into something better than how he or she began.

And lastly, the concern from some [mostly Nigerian] quarters of Blomkamp showing “too much.”

Really.

We Africans are the farthest thing from idiots. We’re highly educated by the hundred of millions, yet we continue to return home and do or tolerate stupid things. If one of us makes a movie showing this, then let’s not jump all over them. Nigerian gangs are a terrifying problem in Joburg, a city in a country suffering from its own problems. If any Nigerian is truly offended by a movie showing Nigerian gangs misbehaving in SA (which I seriously doubt– don’t you have problems of your own instead of worrying about what criminals are doing in a country you’ve never been in?), then let’s pressure our government to get stricter extradition laws passed in those countries. And if you’re in the West passing judgement on some white guy who dared to show what he sees through his lenses, then try and imagine having these gangs infesting your neighborhoods. Sorry, but truth is truth.

If this is offensive to you, then don’t come to Nigeria, and certainly don’t watch Nigerian movies. I’m not saying Nigeria isn’t the most wonderful place on Earth, but you might not make it to see the good stuff if you can’t make it past the shock stuff.

Blomkamp has made a movie only an African could make. One showing Africans (blacks, whites and everything in between) as we really are, the nonsense we get up to on the continent. Raw, painful, true, and not sanitized for Western audiences a la movies like Black Hawk Down.

Africa is a complex place, and Africans are complex people. Don’t let the color of their skin fool you. A caucasian or an Indian or a Lebanese person who lives in Africa for even less than a generation, so long as they live there and call themselves African, is African. That continent is like no place else on this planet. Perhaps calling yourself African is synonymous with calling yourself human, for once that wind passes through you, whether it’s on a plain or across a jungle river, you’re one and the same with me who can trace my ancestry in the sands.

So, socially and politically what do we do with a movie like District 9?

Well, maybe this will inspire other filmmakers on the continent to someday pick up the myriad stories, texts and experiences that seem ripe for introduction to the rest of the world, and do movies free of perceived obligatory subject matter. Is that too radical a concept for our First World/Third World paradigm? Or with the boom of satellite television and the existence of shows like Big Brother Africa, has the time actually come?

So. This is the point at which I take a breath and let the anger go. With the advent of District 9, I see African filmmaking in a before and after.

Now all that’s left is to mention that Blomkamp has made a watershed science fiction movie.

I could talk about the absolutely fresh use of just about every cliched convention in the genre (that is, that the movie hits all your scifi sweet spots), and I could talk about the brilliant structure of characters, and about use of pacing, and the courageous lack of spoon-feeding an audience, and on and on.

But instead I’ll explain that what I mean to say, when I say a watershed science fiction movie, is that in the best possible sense of the genre, he does not make it easy for you to like, or even to understand, human beings and society.

He does not, as one blogger vomitously put it, make all the aliens “peaceful and kind” (because, of course, it would be more palatable if “the aliens weren’t so unpleasant.” That way, a Western audience could love them, childlike perfection in their victimization), so that the decision as an audience member, unlike in real life, is made simple: love the aliens, hate the whites humans. Um, no.

The movie is meant to be about apartheid in South Africa and the dynamics of whites splitting society into whites and non-whites during that period, and the aliens are meant to represent the victims (non-whites) of that system. The movie plays out mostly along those lines.

But in the end, as Blomkamp himself put it: “At some point, the metaphors and allegories break down. They disappear, and you just have science fiction.”

This is the finest implementation of metaphor, or allegory in a creative work. Because at some point, the work has to be able to stand on its own merits.

Advertisements